FOOD OF THE GODS

This story first appeared in Worlds of The Next GenerationIssue 3, Fall 1992. It appears here without permission, I just hope nobody has a problem with that.

FOOD OF THE GODS

By and large, it was apparent that most member species of the United Federation of Planets were beings that to any human would look like a "person." The basic bipedal, humanoid pattern occurred again and again in the galaxy. Still, there were notable exceptions...The Krichtckt would have been quite recognizable to anyone who had seen a preying mantis. The development of a highly technological insect civilization was really quite rare but after a few early teething problems contact was established with the United Federation of Planets.

"Teething problems" is an apt description, though a painful pun; the Krichtckt were, like their small earthly counterparts, carnivorous. Unfortunately, their main food animal had become a bipedal mammal, a kind of tailless ape that bore an uncomfortable similarity to humans. Early contact with Federation representatives caused a number of embarrassing communications problems as some of the less civilized Krichtckt put their guests to the taste test. After the initial trials, in keeping with the Prime Directive, and with a mind to their personal safety, the Federation kept away.

A hundred and fifty years down the track, the Krichtckt civilization had moved on to a position where their desire for contact with other minds, and for exploration outside their own world outgrew their culinary urges.

The Krichtckt were great farmers with a real love of what kept their planet green, and they had spent centuries breeding Illuk; their food animals. Their planet had become the perfect Illuk breeding ground, which also made it a most beautiful and desirable planet for the humanoid members of the Federation.

And the Krichtckt changed; while they still kept Illuk as pets, the capture of wild Illuk was becoming illegal, and abattoirs were closing down. In deference to their new allies in the Federation, they were installing food replicators, machines similar to transporters that could create meat based on the Illuk protein pattern, without killing anything. It was not a decision that had been arrived at easily, a generation had lived and died with the conflict of indecision as Illuk hunters, farmers and butchers fought for their right to work.

Eventually it was the urge of the young Krichtckt to know the mysterious and wonderful races from the stars that won. In the early days, the truly great leaders had understood eventual contact with the Federation to be a foregone conclusion, and had seen to it that the education of their children included whatever information about the Federation that they could glean from their early brief contacts, and an ongoing subspace information exchange. For the young generations of Krichtckt, not only was such contact inevitable, but highly desirable. So love of learning and simple curiosity overcame the hidebound conservativism of economics, and the food replicators were installed. It made for a much more relaxed atmosphere between the Krichtckt and humanoids.

High above the planet, settled in its standard orbit, the Enterprise brought the food replicators and the Federation ambassador; a Gorn by the name of Fritta. The Krichtckt seemed more able to carry on a serious conversation with a big lizard than with something that either looked all to much like last night's dinner, or someone's spoilt pet.

Under the supervision of Engineering chief, Geordi LaForge, the last replicator had been installed. He demonstrated its use to the Krichtckt Ambassador's aide, Chickla, as well as to the technicians who would be regularly operating the machinery.

"The settings are entered here...and here, and then we energize and...viola!" in a sparkle of transporter-like incandescence, a heap of bloodily dripping meat appeared in the arrival chamber.

"Dinner is served," said Geordi.

"It looks so fresh," said Chickla, "I can hardly believe it came from a machine. May I...do you mind if I just taste a little?"

"Be my guest," Geordi motioned to the chamber, rather relieved that he didn't have to deal with it himself.

Chickla shredded the meat with the comblike appendage at the tip of his first pair of legs, removing bloody fragments of the meat upon which he began to nibble with a delicate, fastidious air.

"Oh, Geordi," he said, and his great compound eyes reflected the light, seeming to twinkle, or perhaps it was just the way Geordi's VISOR was reading the wavelengths, "This is soooo good! This is the sort of meat our top chefs would sell their souls to get."

"Hey, I've been eating food out of these things all my life," said Geordi indicating the replicator, "I could have told you how good it was."

At the invitation of Ambassador Fritta, and her Krichtckt counterpart, Krchlik, the officers of the Enterprise were invited to dinner.

"To be invited to dinner, rather than for dinner, by the Krichtckt is a difference of some semantic import," observed Data.

"Data!" said Geordi, "You made a joke!"

The android gazed at him with wide, surprised eyes, and Geordi had to explain it to him.

The meal was a grand banquet held to celebrate the arrival of the Krichtckt as a member species of the UFP, the opening of their home as a place of rest and recreation, and, no less importantly, the testing of their new replicators.

The banquet before them was nothing short of sumptuous, and not everything was from the replicators. As well as the meat, there were plates heaped with bread, native fruits, vegetables and nuts. There were vegetarian stews and curries, and plates of sweetmeats that resembled croquemboche. Around the food plates were flowers that glittered like jewels. No one was quite sure if the flowers were edible or just part of the decoration, but the whole effect was quite stunning.

The Krichtckt were somewhat taller than their humanoid guests, but they moved with careful deference to their new allies; they kept their armored forearms tucked down by their thoraxes, and used only the delicate tips of their first pair for eating. They stood, centaur-like on their two rear pairs of legs, or sat, resting their abdomens on cushions. Iridescent colors shone through the membranes of their atavistic little wings, their antennae, mostly laid back along the dorsal ridges of their thoracic segments, flicked up, from time to time, to be combed down again by the delicate fingers of their deadly first pair of legs. They spoke with sharp, crickety voices that seemed somehow reminiscent of a hot summer's day.

Chickla scooped a clawful of the replicated meat from a bowl on the table before him, delicately shredding it with his mandibles. Riker watched, with mixed feelings.

"I understand you humans have very strong taboos about cannibalism, so I will not make the mistake of offering this meat to you," said Chickla, "You must think it barbaric of me even to eat this in mixed company."

"Not so long as I know it came from a replicator," said Riker, "And there have been various human societies that regarded cannibalism as the highest form of respect for a defeated enemy..."

"What!?" said Worf, His face registered a mixture of surprise and delight, "I knew there had to be some really worthwhile human customs."

The Krichtckt laughed, they had a well developed sense of humour and appreciated Worf's point of view, in a hundred and fifty years they had observed and learned, understanding a lot about the member species of the Federation.

"Actually," said Chickla, "Much as I enjoy the taste of Illuk meat, I was never terribly happy with the idea of killing them. While I understand it has been necessary in the past, I am glad to be a part of a world that can do without it."

"Barbarism!" grunted Krchlik.

"We don't all want to be vegetarians," retorted Chickla.

"Just so long as I'm not on the menu," said Geordi.

Chickla turned and stared at him, then delicately poked him in the ribs, "Nah," he finally decided, "Too skinny. You'd make a cute pet, though."

Geordi hammed a worried face.

"It was a joke," said Troi in a loud stage whisper, and they all laughed.

"Shore leave," said Dr Crusher, "For every member of the crew."

"Approved with fanfares and exaltation, Doctor...uh you did say every member of the crew."

"Including the Captain," said Crusher.

"Especially the Captain," sighed Picard.

"What are you planning to do?" asked Crusher, "I believe they have some glorious beaches, as well as their wonderful gardens. Most of the crew are headed for places where the Illuk were farmed, though. It's amazing how what was once an old farm shed can be turned into really charming rustic living quarters."

"No thank you," said Picard. He was packing a very basic kit; a couple of books, a lightweight thermal sleeping sheet, a few camping tools, and not a lot else.

"I've had enough of people," he said, "I am up to here with people," he raised one hand, like a salute, to his eyes, "I'm going to pretend to be an explorer I used to know, a fellow by the name of Jean-Luc Picard. This place is a little tamer than what he was used to; the weather's perfect, something edible grows on every tree, and there aren't any nasty creatures that bite."

"That we know of," said the Doctor, and she added a small medical tricorder to the Captain's pack.

"And none of it has been explored by anyone from the Federation," Picard hefted his pack onto his back.

"Have fun, Jean-Luc," said Crusher.

"Just as the Doctor ordered," agreed the Captain happily.

The rest of the crew was just as happy; (though Worf would perhaps have balked a little at that description for himself. He found the concept of "happiness" one of the more frivolous human conditions, and really not becoming of a Klingon's dignity.) Nevertheless, he had joined Riker, Troi, LaForge, and Crusher in trying to organize a game of Capcap. Their playing field was smooth and flat, scattered with a confetti of tiny wildflowers. Curious Krichtckt watched, whispering among themselves, sometimes with their voices, sometimes with the breath exhaled from their spiracles, sometimes with the sound of their wings brushing their chitinous carapaces.

Data was of particular interest to the Krichtckt. They were not sure whether he was a pet of some kind, or just a clever toy, but Chickla had decided he could find out a lot of details without offending anyone, just by asking Data, who quite frankly seemed as fascinated with the human condition as he did. Data, in return, was increasing his knowledge of Xenobiology.

"Though we are similar in shape to the insects of say, Earth, we are, of course, fundamentally different, instead of...What are they doing?" his attention had been distracted by the game, now organized into Bridge team versus Engineering team, with Geordi and Riker, the two opposing captains, presently going through a boasting session as they set up.

"It is a game," explained Data, "Humans seem to find it necessary to relieve stress by this form of competitive outlet. It is also very useful in building the kind of reliance and teamwork needed for emotional stability in the efficient running of a Starship."

"A game," said Chickla loudly, "A game! Oh, that's so cute!"

"They're uh...very jolly," observed Riker, who couldn't help but hear Chickla's outburst.

"They have trouble taking us seriously," said Troi, "It's not that they don't like us, it's just that they can't help thinking of us in terms of their food animals. We look comical to them, just as it might seem comical to us to come across a civilization composed of some traditional human food animal."

"Planet of the chickens," said Geordi, laughing, "I can see their point."

Jean-Luc Picard had himself beamed down well beyond the limits of the city far, even from the farmlands. The forest could have compared itself to Eden, with the happy exception that none of the trees bore forbidden fruit. Picard intended to walk as far as he could in the two days allotted, and to let his responsibilities rest. He wasn't dressed like a Starship Captain, and he certainly wasn't interested in thinking like one. He wore sturdy walking gear, shorts, shirt and boots, but didn't carry any spare clothes; he was going to get as grimy as he could in these two days.

The sun was setting. Picard made himself a small campfire, he drank hot tea and ate bread brought with him from the ship and fruit freshly picked. He lounged back against his pack, holding one of the books he'd brought with him and feeling tired and ready to doze, happy, now, to contemplate the stars from a small, safe place, just for a little while.

In a small, cozy banqueting hall, humanoids and Krichtckt relaxed and enjoyed good food.

"I am curious about what happened to the Illuk," said Troi to Chickla.

"There were almost no wild herds remaining," said Chickla, "We had been breeding them for so long that most had become dependant on our husbandry techniques."

"What about the ones that were housed here?" asked Riker.

"Pets," explained Chickla, "Our food herds have been depleted, we have no need at all for them now, the strong, young ones were returned to the wild. It's nice to see them roaming the forests, though a little dangerous, as wild places must be."

"How dangerous?" demanded Riker, suddenly worried.

Chickla was taken aback, then he seemed almost embarrassed, "Not all of us feel the same about the Illuk, my friend. I eat them because I like meat, an old habit that I am glad I can still enjoy without feeling guilty, thanks to your replicators. Most of us feel bad about killing and prefer the Illuk as pets. Most of us, that is, not all. There are those who, for some reason I do not understand, enjoy killing. And I'm afraid there is still quite a market for the gamey taste of the wild Illuk."

"Chickla, our Captain is roaming about in those forests. Supposing someone mistakes him for a wild Illuk?" said Riker.

"Unlikely," said Chickla, "Let me demonstrate, there is someone I should like you to meet," and he stood up very tall, extending his antennae to their fullest, and let out a shrill sound that might have been the chirp of a very excited cicada.

Something came bounding into the room and bounced straight to Chickla.

"This is Trikki," said Chickla, who rewarded her by gently scratching the fur on top of her head, and slipping her a tidbit from the table. She stood human height, and had an appealing face; slightly snub nose and wide eyes. The top of her head, and most of her body was covered with silky blue-grey fur. She peered curiously at Riker and Troi, but aside from knowing her name when Chickla spoke it, only responded to speech with a poor but appealing imitation of the clicking sounds prevalent in the Krichtckt speech.

"That's uncanny," whispered Riker, "She looks so human." He turned to Troi, "Can you read anything from her?"

Trikki had moved to Troi and was examining her clothes, tasting the fabric, sniffing Troi's face, "I read here what I would expect from a well cared for companion animal: trust, curiosity...she can't figure us out, we don't smell right. Very little of what you would call intelligence or personality."

"Nonsense," said Chickla, gathering Trikki protectively into his powerful first pair of limbs and gently stroking her head, "Illuk are very bright, and they do have personalities, you just have to get to know them."

Trikki squirmed out of Chickla's grasp and made her way to Beverley, who had extended a morsel of fruit. She accepted the fruit and permitted the Doctor's petting.

"She has no thumbs," observed the Doctor, holding Trikki's paw for a second after giving her the fruit. The Illuk's hands were rather small and twisted in comparison to human, as well as lacking the essential opposing digit. Still, she had no problem extracting fruit from the Doctor, and begging her for more. She reminded Riker of someone's horribly spoiled pet Pekinese.

"Well," said Riker, "I think I see your point, I can't imagine anyone being dumb enough to mistake Captain Picard for one of these." Nevertheless, he still made it his business to contact Picard and warn him.

The sudden chirp of his communicator woke Picard with a start from a light doze, "Picard here...?"

"Riker here, Captain, how are you?"

"Quite well thank you, Number One, and enjoying the solitude."

"I am sorry to disturb you sir, but I just wanted to warn you that apparently there are Illuk poachers at large in the hills."

"I shall endeavour not to resemble anyone's dinner. Thank you for the warning, Will. Is that all?"

"Sleep well, Jean-Luc."

"Goodnight, Will."

Picard looked up at the sky, watching how the atmosphere made the stars twinkle and sparkle. From space they were beautiful, from the planet they were just magic. Now that it was fully dark, Picard could make out a dull, large star low in the sky, gleaming silver grey in reflected light. It hung steadily in the heavens like a sentinel above him.

"Goodnight Enterprise," said Picard to the guardian star, "See if you can manage to survive without me, just for two days."

Jean-Luc Picard woke with the birds in the clear grey time immediately before sunrise. He stretched and put his hands behind his head and enjoyed just lying there without doing anything for a little while. It was warm and slightly humid in the forest and the lake he had camped beside was irresistibly tempting. He had been sleeping naked, the sleeping sheet bunched up around him. He untangled himself from the sheet, headed down to the lake and threw himself into the water.

Breakfast was every bit as extravagant as dinner, and with all the happy gossip that was going on it took Deanna Troi's empathic senses to track down the feelings of discontent that were emanating from the First Officer.

"What is it, Will?"

Riker felt no resentment at what might have been seen by some as an intrusion into his feelings, he had long ago accepted Deanna's caring attitude to how he...and the rest of the crew felt. Her work was her life, and she could no more ignore strong feelings than she could stop breathing.

"I'm still worried about the Captain."

"Goes with the territory. Why don't you just call him?"

"He'll resent it, he thinks I'm mother henning him."

"He may resent it, but he also understands why you do it. Call him."

Riker smiled and tapped his combadge, "Get me Captain Picard."

Instead of Picard's voice, it was Lieutenant Fforbes, presently in command of the Enterprise; "Captain Picard is not answering, Commander Riker, though he did contact us a few minutes ago to let us know that he would be out of attendance from his combadge for a little while."

"A little while? How little?"

"I...I don't know, sir," Fforbes was somewhat flustered by the First Officer's reaction, "Not long....I guess."

"Not long..." a sigh of exasperation, "Let me know as soon as you've spoken with him. Riker out."

Chickla had heard most of this conversation, the Krichtckt seemed to have very little aversion to eavesdropping, "Already a problem while you are supposed to be rested and recreating," he said sadly, shaking his head.

"The trouble with Captains," said Will, "Is that the best ones won't do as they're told, and refuse to stay put."

"But you are supposed to be relaxing, and therefore, care of your Captain shall be in the hands of your hosts. I understand that by the use of the little badges you wear, you are able to establish the coordinates of each person."

"That's right."

"Then I shall inform the park rangers of the position of your Captain's camp, and they will happen to find it, and seeing that he is well, will report back to me."

Troi could feel Riker's concern lift, it was a slightly devious plan that enabled him to meet his responsibility as the Captain's "caretaker" while avoiding the constant niggle of resentment that Picard felt at being minded.

Hot and yellow, the sun came up on Picard making a rainbow with spray as he splashed through the water. He felt more relaxed than he had done in a long time, the water was cool and crystal clear and as it streamed from him, he felt as if all his stresses were flowing away with it. As he stepped from the lake he was almost tempted to go and lie on the short green grass, for the sheer sensual pleasure of it. He might even have done so, except right at that moment he was knocked to the ground by a coarse, heavy net.

Tutchka and Krit peered at what they had caught. The term "dumb redneck" is idiomatic to Earth, dumb rednecks per se however, are not, and Tutchka and Krit were dumb.

"Well, we're not going to get anything for the pelt on that one," said Tutchka disgustedly.

"Have a looky," crooned Krit, "I ain't never seen nothin like this before. A hairless Illuk."

"They breed them down south," commented Tutchka, "Really little ones with no hair."

"I am not an Illuk!" spluttered Picard, having finally managed to extract dirt, grass, and bits of rope from his mouth.

"Did you hear that?" said Krit, peering at their captive, "He sounded just like he was talking."

"Of course I can talk. I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. Now will you kindly remove this net!"

But the Krichtckt weren't paying attention, "Park Rangers!" hissed Tutchka, and they bundled Picard into a grubby sack, as though they were poachers with a hare, and raced away.

The two park rangers arrived not long behind the fast moving poachers, though not soon enough to catch them in the act. What they did find was Picard's small camp; his burnt down fire, scrunched up sleeping sheet, pack with its few provisions, clothes and communicator.

"This would be the place," said Chirk, "It matches exactly the co-ordinates the Starship persons sent us. Look, this is his combadge, the device enabling the ship's computer to track him."

"And so their leader must be somewhere close," agreed Tikkt, and he raised up on his rear pairs of legs, extending his antennae in the calling gesture and uttered a shrill: "PICARD!"

Nothing, of course. The two rangers began to search in earnest, both calling now. They roamed about for some minutes, pausing from time to time to listen for a reply. There was only the birdsound from the forest, the faint hush of a morning breeze whispering through the trees, and the lap of water in the lake.

"I have a very bad feeling about this," admitted Chirk.

"Do you think they'll throw us out of their Federation for poaching their leader?" wondered Tikkt.

"Who knows what kind of punishment they may have," sighed Chirk, combing his antennae.

For a Krichtckt Krchlik looked solemn, his rainbow eyes held them steadily and he stood solidly on his rear pairs of legs, holding himself in a straight, rigid, very formal stance.

"The foresters have located your Captain's camp," he told Riker, "The camp was undisturbed, along with the communicator and his other belongings. No Captain, though."

"Could he have simply wandered from his campsite?" said Chickla, "Got lost perhaps?" Chickla did not bear his superior's dignified stance, his antennae flicked constantly and his wings vibrated, he swayed from foot to foot, betraying his nervous anxiety with every move. Krchlik looked askance at his subordinate, and then returned his gaze to the humans.

"Our Captain is an explorer," said Riker, "Basic bushcraft is second nature to him. He would not lose himself."

"I did not think this could happen," said Krchlik at last, "But it seems your Captain has been mistaken for a wild Illuk. He's been taken by poachers."

Riker had himself, Commander Troi, Geordi, Dr Crusher, and Data beamed down to where Picard had made camp. The rangers, Chirt and Tikkt were waiting.

"There's nothing much to see, really," said Crusher, crouching down by the small pack she had watched Picard load just the day before.

"I must disagree, Doctor Crusher," said Data, affecting his best Sherlock Holmes attitude, "All around us are clues...observe;" he picked up Picard's shoes from beside the pack, "Doctor, how many pairs of shoes were you aware of the victim packing?"

"How many pairs of shoes? Oh, Data," she sounded exasperated, "I don't know. As far as I can remember he didn't pack any shoes, there was just the pair he was wearing."

"Exactly!" crowed Data, "Thus do I see evidence of a shoeless Captain," he strutted about the campsite, turning his gaze this way and that, though it was all show. Data just enjoyed playing the part. His faster than human positronic brain had made the obvious connection within seconds of arriving at the campsite, "And can you tell me, doctor, perhaps just one or two details of what it was that the Captain packed in the way of vestments?"

"Just the clothes he had on his back, Data. He was travelling light."

"Aha!" said Data, indicating the heap of clothing beside the rumpled sleeping sheet, "Thus do I surmise, from the presence of all the clothing the victim was wearing coupled with the proximity of the lake, that immediately prior to, his capture, our victim, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, was or intended to...."

"Oh, no!" interjected Geordi, the image forming in the blind man's mind bringing a mixture of amusement and horror to his face, "Captain Picard was skinny-dipping."

"...bathe in the lake, minus attire," concluded Data, turning his flat, wide eyed gaze on Geordi.

Chirt led them to the lake, the tracker noticed the slight marks in the grass almost immediately and pointed them out to the others; a flattened spot where something had fallen, dug in slightly, a trampled area, signs of a struggle.

"This is where something was trapped," he said.

"What can you see, Geordi?" asked Riker.

Geordi studied the ground for some seconds, "Hard to tell exactly, I haven't had Chirt's experience with tracking, but I'd say there was someone lying on the ground here and under magnification I'm getting...a pattern, like a weave. A net, maybe. Those are...I guess they're Krichtckt footprints all over the place. Infrared indicates they went that-a-way."

"Riker," said Chirt, "These Krichtckt that have taken your Captain are very bad. It is a criminal offense to hunt in the reserve, and since joining your Federation, it is against the law to hunt Illuk at all. We do our best, but we cannot be everywhere at once. The flesh of wild Illuk is fine eating, and worth a great deal of money on the black market."

"These poachers make a living from their hunting," added Tikkt, "It may be another generation or two before the Illuk are totally safe. What I am trying to say is that we may already be too late for your Captain."

Tutchka and Krit arrived at their little bush camp, and dumped their contraband on the floor. Their hut contained a great deal of damning evidence concerning their activities in the forest. Illuk pelts in every shade of blue, from an almost silver white, through several lavenders and sky blues, to a deep, rich navy blue, almost black, hung from the walls. There was a small holding cage containing a pale grey male Illuk who shrank back from his captors. Through a partially open door there was also a coolroom which contained the remains of two other Illuk, their flayed carcasses hung by the ankles from hooks. Beasts in a butcher shop.

Krit removed the bag from Picard, who had managed to not suffocate during his trip, but only just. His head was still a little muzzy and he was having some trouble focussing his eyes.

"You were too rough with him," complained Tutchka, "Look, he's all bruised down one side."

"Not much eatin' on him anyways," muttered Krit, "We won't get much per pound."

"Quality, brother, quality," soothed Tutchka, "These skinny ones have the best flavour."

"I am not an Illuk!" insisted Picard, trying to untangle his feet from the net so he could at least stand up.

"I never heard of one being able to talk like this," said Tutchka, removing the net, "Maybe he's an escaped pet."

"I told you already, I am Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the..." Krit's formidable first pair of limbs hefted Picard from the ground, "Put me down!"

"I don't see any brands or nothin," he turned Picard about as easily as if the struggling, angry man were nothing more than a doll, "Not even a collar mark. Finders keepers I say," Krit decided finally.

Picard would have grabbed the Krichtckt by the antennae, but his hands were held down quite firmly by Krit's other first limb, it could easily have snapped him in half, but simply held his body at such an angle that he couldn't even get in a kick. He tried to centre himself with a calming breath, "Will you please listen to me, I am not an Illuk, I am a human being from the planet Earth, one of the homes of the United Federation of Planets, which your people have just joined. Now I would appreciate it if you..."

"He's an excitable little feller, isn't he?" said Krit.

"Too much adrenalin makes 'em tough," said Tutchka, reaching for something from the shelf behind him, and he pushed a bulb containing pink fluid down Picard's throat. Picard choked on the fluid, sprayed it out of his nose and mouth. He breathed some of it and swallowed quite a bit, and as it went down he felt control over his limbs slip away, and a curious feeling of languor overcome him. Tutchka opened the door of the holding cage, motioning for the Illuk inside to stay back, an unnecessary gesture, the Illuk was afraid of his captors. Krit placed Picard inside the cage, and as he closed the door the Captain sank helplessly to his knees and then to the floor, and his eyes began to roll shut.

Data looked hopelessly at his tricorder, "I am finding this beyond my abilities, sir," he admitted, "There is an abundance of humanoid readings, however, the Illuk are so similar to humans that I am unable to differentiate. One of these patterns may be Captain Picard, but I cannot tell which."

"Can you search for Krichtckt readings?" asked Chirt, "This is not a place heavily populated with our people. Aside from myself and Tikkt, the only other Krichtckt likely around here are the poachers."

Data changed the input on his tricorder, "Reading two Krichtckt life forms bearing 170, distance 2750 meters."

"Our poachers!" said Chirt happily, "If only we had had your tricorder years ago, we have searched so long for the hideout of Tutchka and Krit. Let us move quickly."

"I think it would be better if we have our ship beam us across to where these Krichtckt are located," said Riker, and he contacted the Enterprise.

Picard fought against the torpor, it was hard enough just keeping his eyes open, getting any sort of cooperation from his arms and legs was exhausting. He hauled himself into a standing position, using the barred door of the cage to lean against. He had fixed on the door's lock, he easily slipped his hand through the bars and over the catch. The Illuks' thumbless hands were not very dexterous, they were designed for reaching down fruit and tearing it apart, nothing more complex than that. The cage door was closed with a simple latch that Picard, even suffering the lack of coordination brought on by the sedative, turned easily.

The door swung open and Picard would have kept his balance if the caged Illuk hadn't decided to make the most of the freedom offered and shoved wildly past him, making for the window and leaping out. Picard's arm twisted as he fell to the floor and he lay there for a moment, confused and disoriented. There were two doors to choose from, one led outside, the other to the coldroom. Unfortunately, Picard chose the wrong door.

Krit liked to work with a good, sharp knife, and this one was honed to a streak. He held it to the light, admiring its feel, as Picard tumbled through the door and fell at his feet, his senses dazed by the thick, bloody smell of the coldroom.

"This little feller just can't wait till dinner time," said Krit with a laugh, and he placed a rope noose about Picard's ankles and hoisted him up to a comfortable working height. "Now, will it be light meat, or dark?" Krit wondered, gazing into Picard's eyes, "What will we get from you?"

"Indigestion," replied Picard, making a desperate but uncoordinated swing at Krit's antenna.

"About twenty years," put in Chirt, who had just stepped in, "Better put down the knife, Krit."

In a blind panic, Krit leaped at Chirt, slicing at his eyes with the knife. Chirt stood up to him, knocking aside his attack with blows from his armored first pair of limbs that would have smashed a human to tartare. Tutchka, being a believer in the "those who fight and run away live to fight another day" philosophy was making for the nearest exit, only to find Tikkt waiting there for him with a set of manacles.

It was Data who brought down Krit by grabbing him by the mandibles and throwing him to the floor. The Krichtckt ranger was then able to restrain Krit with manacles. Krit's departing comment as he was marched out the door was: "Danged if they don't breed them hairless Illuks tougher than they look..."

Picard swung gently by his ankles, his eyes closed against the dizzying motion. Each oscillation brought him up with a bump against one of the bloody Illuk carcasses. Data held Picard still, easing his weight from the rope around his ankles while Riker used Krit's knife to sever the rope. Picard slid into Data's arms, and Data held him while Will removed the rope from his ankles. Then Data lowered the Captain gently to the floor.

Picard was confused by the turn of events, "Data," he muttered, "I don't...I'm not an Illuk!"

"Doctor what is it? What have they done with him?" said Riker.

Dr Crusher swept her diagnostic tool over the Captain's body and Data found himself being elbowed aside by Deanna Troi who took a position beside Picard's head, "It's all right now, Captain, you are safe."

"Tired," he mumbled, trying to prop himself up with arms that felt as heavy as lead, and hardly aware that he hadn't succeeded, and had fallen back to the floor.

"He's been sedated," announced Crusher, as she programmed her hyposprayer and injected him with an antidote, "This will bring him round."

In a few seconds, he began to rouse, Crusher brushed the diagnostic tool over him one last time, "A little bruising, and a few cuts but he'll be ok. We got here in time. Wake up, Jean-Luc," she gently tapped the side of his face, "How do you feel?"

Jean-Luc Picard assessed the situation, this time managing to prop himself up on his elbows. How did he feel? What a question. He had been just about to become somebody's game pie. He was covered in mud and dirt, splattered with blood and pink sedative, and there he lay, stark naked and surrounded by the concerned faces of half the bridge crew.

"That tricorder," he made a vague motion, indicating the tricorder Beverley was holding, "It doesn't have a setting to indicate the state of a person's dignity, does it?" his words were still a little slurred.

"No," she said.

He lay back down again, putting his hands over his eyes, "In that case," he muttered with some resignation, "I'm fine."

THE END

*:)

amanda