Author: Brendan Chris
Mayle was running.
That wasn’t new. In fact, nothing about the situation he found himself in was new. The dark, hazy forest around him, the crunch of twigs and other debris as his heavy foot-pads came crashing down, the feel of loamy soil on his clawed fingertips as he moved on all fours.
The prey he was chasing wasn’t new either. He’d hunted this prey dozens of times, never quite able to see it but always aware that it was there in front of him. He sprinted, but the blurred form he was chasing matched his speed, remaining out of reach.
He could see a thick copse of trees straight ahead. His prey darted straight in, vanishing in the thick branches. He had it now! He quickly circled the bunch of trees, not seeing a single moving leaf. His prey was hiding! Victory would be his!
He jumped into the trees, scattering leaves and branches in all directions.
But where his prey had been, there was now only a small pile of dry, bleached-white bones.
Mayle bared his teeth, threw back his head, and howled.
“What do you suppose he’s dreaming about?” Dr. Brent Wolfman wondered, looking down at the unconscious form of Ensign Greg Mayle as he lay on the double-width bio-bed in Science Lab Three. Mayle was curled on his side and his arms and legs were twitching. Every now and then his mouth opened and he gave an odd little grunt.
“Logically,” Lieutenant Soruk arched an eyebrow, “Considering that he reported experiencing the same dream repeatedly over the course of the past week, we can conclude that he is again dreaming of hunting while in a wolf-like form,”
“Yeah,” Wolfman hasn’t taken his eyes of Mayle, “My dog used to twitch his legs in his sleep like that. I guess now I know why,”
“Let us continue our scans,” Soruk said flatly.
As the Chief Medical Officer and Science Officer respectively, Dr. Wolfman and Lt. Soruk were responsible for leading the study of the Howlers: the dozen (minus one) Starfleet officers and crewman that had been infected with a strange virus that manifested itself with symptoms that were disturbingly similar to Terran werewolf mythology. The Howlers could change at will into a beast that resembled a cross between a humanoid and a big, shaggy wolf. Capable of walking upright or dropping to all fours, the Howlers’ sharp claws, nasty teeth and ability to (mostly) maintain their humanoid intelligence while in beast form had inspired Starfleet Intelligence to group them together into a special assault team. They’d collected enough scientists to study the virus, enough support personnel to get the Howlers to whatever planet they needed to go to, dumped the whole lot on the Intrepid-class USS Farkas then proceeded to classify the whole project so deeply that sometimes the Farkas’ crew themselves weren’t sure whether they were still real, or merely a figment of some demented imagination.
Ensign Mayle was the ‘minus one’. Despite having been infected by the same virus as the rest of the Howlers and despite exhibiting similar changes in behaviour, he was completely incapable of transforming into beast form. Lieutenant Commander Alice Travs, the Farkas Security Chief and leader of the Howlers, along with her second-in-command Lieutenant Morreth and team leaders Ensign Nacht and Lieutenant Vanheath, had spent hours trying to help him through. However, despite cravings for rare meat and the strange nightmares, Mayle was the same man he’d been before he was infected.
More or less.
“Don’t you sometimes just want to lock them all in isolation chambers and poke them with a stick just to see what would happen?” Dr. Wolfman asked, a big grin on his face.
“Highly illogical, as the specimen would no longer be in isolation once we entered to initiate the stick-subject study,” Soruk said, “Or were you considering automated methods?”
“Whatever works,” Wolfman shrugged.
“And what would we expect to learn from such an undertaking?”
“How humanoid-form werewolves react when subjected to repeated negative stimuli,” Wolfman replied.
“Was that not the basis for your experiment involving electroshock and early 21st-Century Terran rap music?”
“And look at how much we learned!”
“And yet, the exploratory surgery you insisted we perform on Ensign Purkcap taught us nothing about human anatomy that we did not already know,”
“Keep your voice down, Peter Pan, we don’t want him to hear us!”
They were quite for a moment.
“Perhaps we could perform exploratory surgery while one is in beast form?” Soruk suggested.
“Sure, as soon as we find a sedative that works on them when they’re all furred and fangy,” Wolfmen replied.
With a shout, Ensign Mayle sat straight up, his head darting around.
“Easy there,” Wolfman said, setting down his medical tricorder, “You’re in the science lab. Remember? We’re studying your brainwaves? While you sleep?”
“Right, right,” Mayle said, taking a deep breath, “I’m OK,”
“Tell me about your dream,” Wolfman said eagerly, “Was it the same as before? Did anything change?”
“Um…it was mostly the same,” Mayle said, trying to recall. Dreams got hazy so quickly, “Except at the very end,”
“Well…whatever I was chasing turned out to be just bones,” Mayle frowned, “That’s the same as always. But then right after, I was…I was in a small, white room. And there were these two veterinarians there. One had a scalpel, and the other was holding a black and yellow book that had ‘Castration for Dummies’ on the cover,”
“What do you think that means?”
“Oh…I’m sure it’s nothing,” Wolfman smiled pleasantly, “Now, why don’t you head on back to work. And tell Ensign Syl we’ll be ready for him first thing in the morning,”
“Sure thing, doc,” Mayle replied.
It was the end of his shift, so Mayle returned to his quarters. In the week since he’d joined the Farkas crew, he’d had his couch and chair replaced and had finally gotten his quarters into order. As the door to the corridor hissed shut, he walked over to his small desk and brought up the days messages. One was from Ensign Nacht, reminding him that there was a Beta Team training exercise in the Howler holodeck at 0800 the next morning. Another was from Counsellor Tomillo, asking him to meet with her to discuss an incident between Crewman Vorns, a Howler on Alpha Team, and another crewman from engineering. Also, at 0800.
Sending a message asking Tomillo to reschedule the appointment, he sent Nacht an acknowledgement, then walked over to his couch.
He was actually feeling pretty wired. He’d slept all afternoon, after all. It was a little early for supper, maybe a workout would be in order?
He glanced over at the stasis tube that contained Felix, his cat. Since he’d been infected with the Howler virus Felix had hissed, slashed, growled at and generally despised him. After he’d shredded Mayle’s couch, Mayle had stuffed him in the stasis tube and left him there. Unfortunately, Felix hadn’t been the only one to react negatively to the news. The Farkas crew didn’t exactly appreciate having a dozen freaks of nature on their ship. Most of them were just uncomfortable with the Howlers, but some were downright hostile. And Mayle, as the only person infected with the virus but unable to transform into a rampaging beast, had been appointed the brand-new liaison officer.
Which meant that the Farkas crew treated him like one of the Howlers, the Howlers didn’t know what to do with him, and his cat treated him like mouse poop.
Biting his lip, Mayle realized he would be spending another quiet evening alone in his quarters.
“OK, team,” Ensign Nacht said, “Today we’ll be practicing a routine assassination. Scenario is that our target is a public figure, often in the media. Planetary police forces have verified evidence of his crimes, but he’s got the legal system tied up in knots. Starfleet, of course, has no jurisdiction in this kind of thing, but Starfleet Intelligence wants him removed. And the best way to ensure nobody suspects anything is with a good, old-fashioned animal attack,”
“Ensign Mayle will handle our command point, while we each take turns sneaking in close enough to take out the target,”
Mayle raised his hand.
“Who’s the target?” he asked.
“Ah!” Nacht looked at the padd in his hand, “Today we have a man who, in the early 21st-Century, terrorised millions. He was seen as a scourge on the face of humanity…it was decades before the rest of the world forgave Canada for spawning this creature,”
“Mobster? Crime lord?” Mayle asked.
“Worse,” Nacht replied, “Justin Bieber,”
“Wait,” Mayle said, “we’re practicing by killing an annoying celebrity?”
The Howlers looked blankly back at him.
“Who else would we practice on?” Porkchop asked, looking confused.
“Nothing, never mind,” Mayle muttered.
Mayle set himself up with surveillance and communications gear in an empty building near the singer’s mansion. The communications gear was decidedly one-way, since the Howlers couldn’t speak English in beast form. But the surveillance equipment would help him practice tracking them while they trained, and both Nacht and Morreth would want to go over his recordings to assess the training.
OK, so it was mostly busy-work since he couldn’t actually practice with the team, but Travs insisted that if he was going to be their liason officer instead of another obnoxious Farkas crewmember, he had to train with them.
“Porkchop, you go ahead and start first,” Nacht called.
Porkchop walked nonchalantly along the sidewalk, near the wall of the singer’s large home. He looked around, shed his shirt, then changed.
His skin turned dark, then sprouted thick fur; short on his arms and neck, longer on his head, down his neck and across his back. His arms lengthened, his chest and back swelled out with the sound of cracking ribs and a thick layer of muscle grew across his body. His mouth pushed out into a canine snout, his teeth sounding almost like popcorn as they changed.
As soon as the transformation was complete, Porkchop leapt over the fence with a single jump. Mayle’s viewpoint followed him as he jumped through an ornate window, leaving the drapes in tatters. He ran through the house, his claws skittering across the marble floors. Within a minute he found a music room where a blond, dainty human male was singing.
“Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby,” Bieber sang loudly.
Porkchop staggered, the boys annoying, high-pitched voice tearing through his sensitive hearing. Then he pounced. There was a flash of teeth, a splash of blood, then the wall was covered in a spray of Bieber-bits.
Porkchop was still clawing at the corpse, ribbons of flesh flying under his razor-sharp claws. He managed to snag most of them between his jaws, wolfing them down.
“Porkchop, you still have to escape,” Mayle reminded him.
On his screen, Porkchop abruptly looked up, then bolted back the way he came. Once he was back outside the fenced yard he changed back to human form, picked his shirt up off the street, dressed, and walked calmly away.
“Not bad,” Nacht said, “But…”
“But?” Porkchop asked.
“Well… you changed in plain sight. Anybody could have seen you,”
“Paulson, you’re up next,”
Paulson’s approach was to slip into the house by jumping into the back of a garbage truck, changing while it drove into the yard then climbing onto the roof of the house. She found a skylight over the practice room. A single well-placed jump and she smashed through the skylight, landed on top of Justin Bieber and squashed him flat. She ripped off his head for good measure, then dug her claws into the wall and hauled herself back up to the skylight and out.
“Better,” Nacht said, “But what’s one advantage that Porkchop’s plan had,”
“It looked more like a random animal attack,” Mayle answered over the comm, “At least to the average passerby. Who’s ever seen a wild dog sneak in through a skylight?”
“Right,” Nacht looked around, “Well, I guess since Syl’s in the science lab, that just leaves me.
Nacht walked right past the big house until he reached a small park. One minute he was walking along a path near a waste canister, the next he disappeared from Mayle’s view. After a moment, the system caught a glimpse of him transforming in the middle of a low bush.
The bushes rustled as he crept, low to the ground, to the edge of the park. He darted into an alley, then quickly sprinted down the alley and leapt the fence into the Bieber residence. From there he smashed through the front door, located his prey (this time squawking something about stars in the sky) and tore the obnoxious brat to bloody shreds.
He retraced his course, changed back to human form, retrieved his cloths from the garbage can and returned to the rest of the team. Mayle came out of the observation post and joined them.
“Of course, this approach wouldn’t work very well if there was heavy surveillance around,” Nacht conceded, “But SI has other assets for those cases. Most of our targets are relatively low-tech.”
“Can we do Kim Kardashian next week?” Paulson asked eagerly.
“Add her to the list,” Nacht shrugged, “No shortage of annoying celebrities to shred.
After the training exercise, Beta team started cleaning up while Alpha Team was helping out with day-to-day security tasks.
“Colis,” Ensign Syl complained as he entered the Howler’s Den, AKA the security squad room and training facilities, “I don’t know what they did to me in the science lab, but it feels like I’ve been poked all over with a stick,”
“Any bruses?” Crewman Paulson asked.
Syl, already stripping down on his way to the showers, started looking around his body. He tried to check his back, but couldn’t turn his neck around enough. Within seconds, he was spinning around, trying to catch a glimpse of his own backside.
“Use the mirror, dummy!” Paulson laughed, “And your thingy is showing,”
Syl held a tower over his groin, then backed up to the mirror.
“No,” he said, “No bruises. But I still ache,”
“Maybe I could…massage you better!” Paulson jumped at him, her hand going for his flat stomach.
“Tummy rub!” Syl laughed, “No! That tickles!” He fell back against the wall, but Paulson moved in without mercy. Within seconds, tears were streaming down Syl’s face as his left leg started beating at the ground.
“HEY!” Lieutenant Morreth barked, his voice somewhat high-pitched and whiney for a Klingon, “What do you two think you’re doing?”
Paulson immediately stopped and stepped back.
“Improving morale, sir!” she said smartly.
“I see that,” Morreth growled.
Syl picked his towel up off the floor and covered himself.
“Clean yourself up!” Morreth ordered, “Travs is getting mission orders from the captain. She’ll be down to brief us in an hour,”
Mayle, having already showered, looked thoughtful as he left.
“It’s like they didn’t even realize what they were doing,” he said.
“Ensign Syl didn’t know that Ensign Paulson was giving him a tummy rub?” Counselor Becky Tomillo asked, “As though they were overtaken by a hostile alien intelligence?”
“Um, no.” Mayle frowned.
“Then you mean that Ensign Paulson, in an uncontrollable fit of rage, attacked Ensign Syl, who for some reason thought he was getting a tummy rub?”
“Those poor, poor, mutated souls,” Tomillo said sadly, “We need to get the entire squad into intensive therapy. Oh, how horrible,”
“They knew what they were doing!” Mayle said, trying to ignore what he’d just heard, “It was just ordinary locker room stuff,”
“Y’know,” Mayle shrugged, suddenly a bit embarrassed, “You get in from training or a mission, everybody’s high on adrenaline, there’s horseplay. People clown around.”
“Does this ever lead to ritualistic hazing?” Tomillo suddenly leaned in, looking interested, “Of a sexual nature, perhaps?”
“Pity,” Tomillo sighed, “I…uh…know how to treat that sort of…deviant behaviour,”
“They just didn’t seem to realize how odd it was that instead of smacking his ass with a towel or shutting off his hot water, she was giving him a tummy rub,” Mayle tried to bring things back to the original topic, “And Syl didn’t even seem to realize that he was completely naked until somebody pointed it out. Doesn’t that seem odd to you?”
“Not really,” Tomillo shrugged, “And probably not to anybody who saw Syl at the New Years Eve party.”
“I’m just worried,” Mayle finished, “I’m worried about what’s happening to these people. Y’know…in the head,”
“Worried about them, or yourself?” Tomillo suddenly switched back into counsellor mode.
“Hey, I’m the only one who seems to be having any success fighting off this virus!”
“Mmmm…yes. Fighting off.” Tomillo’s professional demeanor vanished as quickly as it appeared.
“Anyway, we’re here to deal with Crewman Vors, aren’t we?” Mayle asked.
“Right,” Tomillo rooted around her desk for a moment, then pulled out a padd, “On or about 2100h, two nights ago, Crewman Jacobs was performing a routine inspection of one of our class-9 shuttles, the Hunter. When he arrived in the shuttlebay, he found Crewman Vors standing next to the observation viewport, screaming at the stars. Jacobs tried to ignore him while he checked the shuttle, but after five minutes, he demanded that Vors leave, or at least be quiet. At his point, Crewman Vors walked around the space between the two of them, looking confused. After a few moments, he unzipped his trousers and urinated on the tractor beam housing, then went back to the viewport.”
She set the padd down and looked back up at Mayle.
“Now, how do you suggest we proceed?” she asked.
Mayle stared at her blankly.
“I don’t think I’m cut out for this!” Mayle was saying to Ensign Nacht as the latter walked from the Howler’s mess hall to the briefing room, “Tomillo wanted to force him to wear diapers and go into therapy for nocturnal enuresis!”
“I hope you changed her mind,”
“He still has to go to therapy for a bit, but I convinced her not to make him wear diapers,”
“Good,” Nacht nodded, “Sounds like you’re doing fine,”
Mayle gave the shorter officer a look as they stepped into the briefing room.
“She also says that the next time anybody starts any sort of ‘pseudo-sexual ritualistic hazing activity’, we’re supposed to call her so she can observe our behaviour,” he added.
“Have we ever done any of that?” Nacht asked.
“I don’t know, I just got here a week ago!”
“And we’re glad to have you,” Lieutenant Commander Travs called from the front of the room, “Now sit down, shut up and listen!”
The rest of the Howlers were seated in the tiered rows leading down to the front of the security team’s mission briefing room. Travs stood on a small box behind a podium, while Lieutenant Morreth stood off to one side, ready to run the technical side of the briefing. He tapped a button and one of the big screens displayed the blue-skinned face of an Andorian while the other displayed a typical M-class planet.
“This is Xixumbas,” she began, “She’s the head of the 42nd Hive of Andor. Or at least was, until about two year ago when she embezzled about a million credits worth of latinum, dilithium and other valuables from the Hive and went off to fund a very illegal spleen-harvesting facility on Glubdug IV,”
“Spleen harvesting?” somebody asked.
“Many Andorian dishes call for spleen,” Morreth clarified, “the fresher, the better,”
“Now, in this case, Xixumbas has established herself in a fortress on Glubdug IV,” Travs continued, “It’s a pre-warp civilization, which means it’s protected by the Prime Directive of Non-Interference. It’s roughly equivalent to Earth around the time of the Crusades, in that we’ve got two major religious powers stabbing the living crap out of each other with pointy objects.”
“Literally,” Nacht muttered to Vanheath. They broke into giggles.
“Which means Xixumbas can harvest all the spleen she wants from the battlefields,” Morreth spoke up, “At a ridiculously low cost. The Andorian Coalition of Spleen Merchants has hired a dozen assassins to take her out, and the Andorian Tribunal has sentenced her to a very gruesome death, assuming the assissins fail,”
“Sounds like the Andorians are going to do our job for us,” Lieutenant Vanheath remarked.
“They would, except Starfleet won’t allow anybody to step foot on a Prime Directive planet,” Travs explained, “In fact, they’ve got two starships patrolling the edge of the system now, making sure the Andorians stay out. If the Andorians manage to kill Xixumbas, Starfleet’s going to pitch a fit. And if a Federation recovery team manages to pull her off Glubdug IV and stick her in a rehab colony, the Andorians are going to have assassins all over that place like fleas on a cat,”
Everybody in the room gave a small sneer of disgust.
“So Starfleet Intelligence is sending us in to dispose of the problem before Starfleet or the Andorians can,” Travs concluded, “A fast but messy mauling by wild animals will satisfy the Andorians and preserve the Prime Directive,”
“Sounds like we’ve found our niche market,” Vanheath muttered to Nacht. Again, they giggled.
“We’ve got two days to figure out how to get some Howlers into that fortress, rip apart an Andorian, and get out,” Travs looked towards Nacht, “Who’s up next on the Celebrity Death-List?”
“Ummm…” Nacht looked at his list, “My team wants to do Kim Kardashian, but I had Tom Cruise up next,”
“Well, our next target’s a woman. So stick Kim in some chain-mail and put her in the fortress. Get the scans of the target location from Lt. Morreth. Beta Team’s taking the lead on this one, people,”
She turned, then left.
“DISMISSED!” Morreth shouted, causing at least four Howlers to jump in their seats.
“Wait, not you Nacht,” he called, “And not you Vanheath. And Vors, I need to talk to you. Oh, and Syl, you need to give me the summary of your science lab visit,”
Mayle waited a few moments to see if his name was going to come up, then left.
“I’m bothered by this,” Commander Martin Belis said, crossing his arms.
“I know you are,” replied Captain Evan Harth replied, “You’ve made that abundantly clear.
“They’re talking, very casually I might add, about murdering a Federation citizen,” Belis pressed.
“Yes, that’s what I ordered them to do,” Harth shrugged, “Since those match the orders I received.”
“But does that strike you as ordinary behaviour for a Starfleet officer?”
“For a security team? Let me think.” Harth put a finger in his mouth, then turned almost immediately back to Belis, “YES! Killing things is about half of what a security team trains to do,”
“No, that’s what the Federation Marine are trained to do,” Belis corrected, “What we SHOULD be doing is getting that Andorian scum-bag off that planet and hauling her sorry ass to some god-forsaken penal colony where she can rot!”
“The Andorians disagree,” Harth said mildly, “In fact, the Admiral’s Andorian adjutant agreed that this is the perfect solution. They’re investigating other cases involving Prime-Directive protected planets where we could be useful. Lieutenant Vanheath was right; this could be a real niche market for the Howlers,”
Belis looked coldly at the screen in the captain’s ready room, where footage from the Howler’s briefing was currently paused.
“We’ll see,” he said coldly. The Howlers were too dangerous to be used like this, he knew. Sooner or later, one of those beasts was going to bite the hands that fed them.
Why couldn’t Harth see that?
Mayle returned to his quarters after a busy day. As the only non-changing member of Beta Team, he’d be running the transporter and monitoring the team from the ship. He’d spent much of the time after the briefing reviewing transporter procedures and sensor configuration. Luckily, that meant that the job of cleaning all the spandex Howler undershorts fell on Ensign Porkchop instead of him.
He looked around the empty suite for a moment, then turned and left. To hell with what the Farkas crew thought: he needed a drink, and he needed to do it someplace where he didn’t have to worry about anybody humping, shedding, or peeing on things.
With that he rode the turbolift to Deck 2, entered the mess hall and walked up to the small bar that doubled as a lunch counter during the day.
“I need a beer,” he said, “Something stronger than Old American, but nothing that’ll knock me on my ass,”
“Yes sir,” the bartender said. He did not reach under the counter or turn to the drink replicator, “Um, sir…you know I’m always happy to serve, but it’s generally best if you drink in your mess. I’d hate to see any unpleasantness break out,”
“I can’t change,” Mayle said flatly, “I’ve tried. It doesn’t work.”
“I…oh. The bartender seemed to digest this, “Well…I guess…”
He fiddled behind the bar, then handed Mayle a drink. Mayle drank about half the beer, slammed it down on the counter, then turned to face the other crewmembers in the mess.
“You hear that?” he shouted, “I can’t change into a big shaggy mutt. So get the hell off my back!”
He polished off the rest of the beer, slammed it down, and gestured for another one.
“Sounds like somebody got fixed,” a sneering voice said in his ear.
Mayle turned to see Crewman Fraks, a Xenexian male, taking a seat next to him.
“It’s none of your business,” Mayle said.
“Oh, I think anything involving shapeshifting freaks is everybody’s business on this ship,” Fraks retorted, “None of us would be here if it weren’t for you. Or maybe I should say, if it weren’t for them,”
Mayle didn’t respond.
“So what happened? The virus disappear?” Fraks gave him a small, tight smile.
“That’s your story,” Mayle said, “didn’t say it was mine,”
“You’re right,” Fraks snorted, “I was lucky. I was this close,” he held his hand less than an inch off the counter, “from spending the rest of my life barking and licking my genitals. I was incredibly lucky,”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mayle said, “You may not be licking yourself, but you’ve still got your head shoved up your ass,”
Fraks’ smile faded.
“Shouldn’t you be getting back down to your own mess?” Fraks snapped.
“Funny,” Mayle said, now halfway through his third beer, “Considering I’m not really a Howler, I think I am,”
Fraks glared at him angrily, then at the bartender.
“Technically,” the bartender stuttered, “Everybody’s allowed in here. It’s just that the Howlers generally prefer to keep to themselves,”
“I believe what my friend here is saying,” Mayle said as he got unsteadily to his feet, “is ‘shove it’,”
“OK,” Fraks replied.
Fraks shoved Mayle away from the bar, sending him falling back into a table, sending drinks and glasses flying in all directions. There was a panicked yell as Mayle fell to the floor, then slowly started to rise to his feet. As he did, he noticed that the gathered crew was keeping their distance, looking at him with a mix of fear and expectation.
“He didn’t change,” somebody muttered.
“I don’t know. Is that fur?” somebody else said, “Growing out of his ears?”
“Certainly doesn’t look wolfish,” said a third, “Of course, we haven’t seen him smile,”
Looking around at the crowd, Mayle decided that maybe it was time to leave after all.
He stumbled out of the mess and down the corridor towards the turbolift, one hand reaching out to steady himself on the railing. Was that progress? Nobody had kicked him out of the mess that time, at least. Of course, nobody had come to his defence either. It had seemed like none of them were actually aware of the fact that he was closer to human than Howler, despite the fact that he’d been the focus of some rather intense study over the course of the past week. That seemed to him like the sort of thing that would have been all over the ship at the speed of gossip. That is to say, Warp 10.
He was so caught up in thought (and booze) that he almost walked right past the poster hanging on the bulkhead. He stopped, looked, went to continue walking, then stopped again.
It was a picture of the Howlers. Recent, from the looks of it. From today, actually. It showed them gathered in the briefing room, the back of Lt. Cmdr. Travs’ head clearly visible at the bottom of the frame. Across the top and the bottom of the picture somebody had added the following words:
FREE TO A GOOD HOME.
With a snarl of anger, Mayle ripped the poster off the wall. He stalked past the turbolift and did a quick circuit of the deck, tearing down two more posters along the way.
Mayle woke the next morning with a very unpleasant thudding in his head. He had vague memories of racing through deck after deck, looking for…something. Then voices…people…ship security, maybe? Then things got dark.
He groaned, then rolled over in bed. His head hurt, his tongue felt fuzzy and he was pretty sure he’d pulled something in his back when he fell on that table. At least his feet were nice and warm. Really warm, actually. Almost like…
Mayle sat up, instantly regretting it but determined to stay up.
Ensign Porkchop was curled up at the foot of his bed, clad in a comfortable-looking pair of pajamas.
“What are you doing?” Mayle croaked.
“Oh, you’re OK!” Porkchop said, stretching, “Ensign Nacht told me to keep an eye on you, after ship security caught you running around Deck 10 with an armload of ripped posters,”
“And by keeping an eye on me, you figured he meant crawling into my bed?”
“Just trying to help out, buddy-boy!” Porkchop said, getting to his feet, “Hey, is there breakfast? I could really go for some breakfast. Let’s get breakfast!”
With that, he darted out of Mayle’s room, through his living area and out into the corridor.
“I hate morning people.” Mayle muttered.
His cat, still stuffed in the stasis tube, did not respond.
As the Farkas warped towards the Glubdug system, Mayle’s life didn’t exactly improve.
First, Commander Belis ordered him into counselling for his little poster-tearing rampage, conveniently ignoring the fact that somebody on the Farkas crew had put the insulting things up in the first place. Then Counsellor Tomillo had spent an hour with him talking about his childhood, followed by a prescription for medication that the library computer told him was actually for erectile dysfunction. Of course, he didn’t realize this until after he’d taken his first dosage and wound up with a permanent…bulge. How incompetent was that woman?
“You switched the meds?” Dr. Wolfman asked.
“I did,” Counselor Tomillo replied, “But really, I don’t see how this is useful. Or ethical. We could be doing serious harm to that man’s emotional well-being!”
“Yes, exactly,” Wolfman replied absently.
“By the way, we have another Howler reporting being locked in a turbolift by one of your nurses,” Tomillo continued, “Perhaps we could arrange a Harrassment Prevention Seminar? With cookies! Or maybe coffee? OH! OH! Coffee AND cookies!” She clapped her hands gleefully.
“Yes, yes,” Wolfman waved her away, “Whatever,”
So once again, Mayle found himself in the mess hall, drinking alone. This time he was seated at a table next to one of the windows that looked out towards the front of the ship, watching the stars streak by. Soon, the ship would be entering restricted space and the Farkas crew would have a chance to see just how well their sensor-reflective shields actually worked. Why Captain Harth didn’t just contact the two Starfleet ships patrolling the edge of the system and give them clearance codes was beyond Mayle, and the situation made him feel like they were sneaking into enemy territory. Enemy territory that just happened to be in their own back yard.
Back yard. Heh. Paulson or Syl would appreciate that one. The rest of the Farkas crew probably wouldn’t get it.
Mayle shifted his weight, trying to get comfortable despite the after-effects of Tomillo’s medication. How long was it going to take for the damned thing to get back to normal?
“Hey,” a voice said from over his shoulder, “That a phaser in your pocket, or you just happy to see me?”
“I haven’t seen you yet,” Mayle replied, trying to tilt his head back, “And that’s the oldest, cheesiest line in the book,”
An attractive blond woman came around and leaned on the back of the chair across from his.
“Anybody sitting here?” she asked.
“No,” he gestured at the chair, “But I should warn you that everybody thinks I’m a dangerous, blood-thirsty beast,”
“Rumour has it you’re not, you just play one on TV,” she replied, taking a seat, “I’m Becky,”
“Greg,” Mayle replied, “And…it’s complicated.”
“You’re the new guy. The one that’s infected, except you don’t get all hairy on a full moon,”
“OK, not that complicated,” Mayle admitted, “Is that why you came over here? To check out the circus freak?”
“Well, part of why I came over here was a request,” she said, suddenly getting business-like, “See, the antigravity system in Cargo Bay 2 is out and we’ve got a bunch of containers that need to be moved around. It’s going to take us forever. But if we had half a dozen really strong…beings…well,”
“So, you want me to get the guys to change, just so they can lift heavy things?” he asked, “Uh…why ask me?”
“Well, you ARE the liason guy, aren’t you?”
“OK, I’ll ask,” he paused, “What’s the other reason you came by?”
“Well, your…excitement is a bit hard to miss,” she gave him a mischievous grin.
“My…oh!” Mayle blushed, “Look, that’s just…they gave me the wrong medication,”
“That’s too bad,” Becky said, rising from her chair. She gave him a look, “well, if you change your mind, come buy me a drink,”
With a wink, she moved over to the bar.
Mayle remained in his seat for approximately 2.4 milliseconds before jumping to his feet and dashing to the bar.
“Interesting,” Wolfman observed, watching the spy-cam footage from Mayle’s cabin, “I was certain the changes in his endocrine system would render him unappealing to non-Howler females, yet she seems to be responding to his advances,”
“I would suggest your choice in test subject is ill-advised,” Lieutenant Soruk said, watching clinically as Mayle and Becky kissed on the screen. (Their cloths were still on, at least.) “My understanding is that Ensign Becky Ianda is not the most discerning when it comes to her sexual partners,”
“I agree,” Wolfman nodded, “But who else could we manipulate into going after him than a hyper-sexed woman who needs a bunch of heavy stuff moved?”
“I concede your point,” Soruk inclined his head.
They watched for another moment.
“Let’s see what happens if they’re interrupted,” Wolfman decided, “Cut power to the cat’s stasis tube.”
Mayle didn’t know what happened. One minute, he was trying to get Becky’s bra off, the next there was this horrible, ear-splitting howling, then a sharp pain on his back. He lurched, banging his nose into Becky’s forehead.
“HEY!” Becky objected, “It’s a little early to get rough, buddy!”
“What…FELIX!”Mayle snapped, reaching behind to try to get the cat off his back.
“You never said anything about a jealous boyfriend!” Becky accused.
“It’s my cat!”
Becky, recovered from the nose-head ‘aborted docking manouver’, finally located the source of the noise. She pulled Felix off his back and started stroking him.
“There there,” she cooed at the cat, “Was somebody mean to you?”
“I had him in stasis,” Mayle tried to explain, “He’s been attacking me ever since I…well, since I got to this ship,”
“He’s just upset about moving, aren’t you, puss-ums?” Becky nuzzled the cat, “And being in a sleepy-sleep tube isn’t going to help,”
She let Felix jump to the floor. He hissed at Mayle, then scampered over to the kitty-bed in the corner.
“Well, I guess I should head home,” Becky said, “I’ll see you guys in the cargo bay after the mission?”
With that, she left.
“Don’t suppose you feel like cat-sitting?” Mayle called to the empty room. He sighed.
“Guess I’ll have to take care of this medication problem by myself,” he grumbled, wiping blood off his nose.
“It’s the waiting that I can’t stand,” Porkchop said.
“Oui,” Syl agreed, “Not knowing if we’re going, or not going, or if the ship has been detected,”
“Personally, I think having all of you in here wearing spandex is the worst part,” Mayle said from behind the transporter console.
Beta Team, comprised of Nacht, Paulson, Syl and Porkchop, was gathered in Transporter Room 2 along with Morreth and Mayle. Morreth would be going down on the mission while Mayle ran the transporter and monitored the team. Travs was staying on the bridge with the captain for this mission.
And yes, as per standard procedure, the Howlers had stripped down to their individually coloured spandex shorts prior to changing: Red for Morreth, green for Porkchop, orange for Syl, tan for Nacht and pink for Paulson. Paulson was wearing a matching bikini-top, her shorts had a handy little pouch to tuck it into after she changed. They each wore a flexible earpiece that would remain fixed in their right ears, even after they transformed.
“We’re sexy,” Syl said, flexing his stomach, “I tink we’re sexy!” His face drooped a bit. “Don’t you tink we’re sexy?”
“I’m not interested in men, Syl,” Mayle said flatly.
“S’okay dude,” Porkchop patted Syl on the back, “I’m not into dudes either, but I still think we’re all sexy,”
Syl looked a bit happier after that. Mayle rolled his eyes, but truth be told he actually felt a little bad that he hadn’t been able to join in on their little pre-mission joshing. He could still feel the energy in the room, that desire to be ‘let off the leash’.
But he still felt outside of it.
“Hey, I hear you volunteered us to move crates in the cargo bay,” Morreth said to him, quietly enough that the others didn’t hear, “Thank you. We all so enjoy being used as menial labour,”
“Bridge to Transporter Room 2,” Travs’ voice came over the comm, “We have a go. Deploy, deploy, deploy,”
“I heard you the first time,” Mayle muttered as the Howlers jumped onto the tranporter pad. As they did so, they began to change, fur and muscles rippling until the platform was filled with thick, burly, furred bodies. Together they let out a roar that seemed to shake the ship.
“Energizing,” Mayle said as he ran his right hand up the sliders, his left massaging his left ear, “And…ouch…”
As he accessed the sensor array and homed in on the beam-down point, he had time to wish Tomillo had mistakenly given him a painkiller instead.
Beta Team materialized in the middle of a dense forest. Grubdug IV was a temperate world, though the sky seemed a bit too blue, the foliage a bit too yellow, and the air far too humid. Morreth took the lead, dropping to all fours and trotting towards a distant stone tower.
“No, Morreth,” Mayle’s voice came over their earpieces, “That’s the wrong fortress. Xixumbas is holed up in a castle west of your position,”
Morreth gave a quiet yowl, as if to protest.
“If you’re trying to tell me that you’re heading west because the sun is setting over there, you should probably know that Grubdug IV’s sun sets to the east.
Morreth growled, turned, then began trotting towards the stone tower that had previously been directly behind him.
“I’m getting more data from the bridge,” Mayle went on, “There are Andorian life-signs coming from the main keep, just like we had in the simulation. It looks like there was a battle about ten kilometres from your position, so it’s likely that her accomplices are out gathering spleen. And you might want to run back and grab Syl, he’s getting intimate with a tree again,”
“Don’t need to see that,” Mayle muttered, moving the optical sensors from Syl to Porkchop. Just in time to see a small squirrel-like animal disappear in a flash of strong jaws and a squirt of blood. “Oh. Didn’t need to see that either,”
“Bridge to Mayle,” the comm chirped, “Report,”
“Beta Team is en route to the target,” Mayle replied, “Nothing else to report,”
“Acknowledged. Bridge out,”
As the channel closed, Lieutenant Vanheath stepped through the doors from the corridor. Like Beta Team, he was dressed only in a pair of tight-fitting spandex shorts.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“I just beamed them down five minutes ago,” Mayle said crossly, “Uh, sir,”
“Well, Alpha Team’s ready to move out, if you need us,” Vanheath said, “Oh, and thanks by the way. We just love power-lifting to help out the idiots on this ship,”
Mayle couldn’t take much more of this.
“If any of you had poked your heads off Deck 7 recently, you might have noticed that the Farkas crew has some pretty big issues with you guys,” he said.
“Yeah, we don’t have to leave our territory to see that,” Vanheath snorted, “We never see them, they never see us. Well, except the bridge and science guys watching us on a mission or something,”
A thought occurred to Mayle.
“When was the last time an ordinary Farkas crewman saw any of you in beast form? And I don’t mean as part of an experiment or something.”
“Uh…dunno. Maybe never?”
“Thought so,” Mayle turned his attention back to his scanners, “Hey…I’m picking up some funny readings north of the castle…it almost looks like…let’s see if I can get the optical sensors over there…”
“Transporter room to bridge!” he snapped, “There’s a ship on the planet! Andorian design!”
“Yes we’ve seen it,” a bored-sounding voice came from the bridge, “Xixumbas’ getaway ship, most likely,”
“Then why does it have an Andorian Assassins Guild marking?” Mayle demanded.
“Whatever,” the bridge signed off.
Nacht eased himself up the wall of the fortress. The stone wall would have been almost impossible for a human to climb, but the Howlers’ extended reach made it easy. He slowly brought his eyes level with one of the narrow slots lining the top of the wall; standard design for any culture that used arrows or other projectile weapons. Inside the fortress he could count close to two dozen armed guards patrolling the ramparts and down on the ground. A main hall or keep crouched at the other end, no doubt their prey was holed up in there. Tactically, it would have made more sense to climb the wall directly behind the keep, but whoever designed the fortress had apparently realized that…the wall was higher at that end, and the stone appeared to have been polished smooth enough to make any sort of climbing impossible.
He gently lowered himself down as far as he could, then dropped the last few feet to the ground. Morreth and the rest of the team looked at him expectantly. He reached out with a clawed index finger and quickly sketched the layout of the fortress, familiar to everybody from the orbital scans. He quickly indicated the guard positions he’d seen. Syl was whining softly with impatience, and Porkchop’s left hind leg was starting to twitch.
Morreth studied the diagram for a moment, then quickly sketched out a path that would keep them relatively out of sight. He stomped out all evidence of their presence and gestured for the team to follow. As one, they jumped up the wall, their long arms just reaching the ridge below the ramparts. (Except for Porkchop, who fell to the ground. He made it on the second try, his hind legs pawing at the wall to get him over the top.
They’d just passed Nacht’s previous lookout point when a screech of static burst from their earpieces.
“SHIT!” Mayle cursed.
“What?” Vanheath demanded, coming around the transporter console.
“We’re being jammed!” Mayle snapped. On the console, Vanheath could see that the sensor displays focusing on the fortress had dissolved into confused jumbles.
“I don’t think the Glubdugs have subspace jamming technology,” Vanheath observed.
“No, it’s got to be…hold on, let’s see if I can localize it…it’s coming from the target location!”
He called the bridge and reported.
“Yes, thank you for your report,” Lt. Soruk’s calm voice replied, “We are aware of the jamming, and are confident that Beta Team will succeed in their mission and move out of the affected area for retrieval,”
In the background, he could hear Travs using language that was decidedly un-ladylike.
“But they don’t know-“
“-that there’s Andorian assassins down there,” Mayle finished as the channel went dead.
“Beam me down!” Vanheath demanded, jumping on the transporter pad.
Mayle was punching in coordinates, then realization struck him.
“You can’t go,” he said flatly.
“They’re in trouble!” Vanheath shouted. His pupils were already vertical slits and his teeth were starting to lengthen.
“And you’re going to do what? Explain the situation to them through interpretive dance?” Mayle ran to the equipment locker and grabbed a tricorder, phaser rifle, a small anti-grav unit and a case of transport enhancer bands, “They don’t need another Howler right now, they need somebody who can speak English and use a phaser!” He stuffed the equipment into a pack.
Vanheath thought about this for a moment, then stepped off the pad and back behind the console.
“You’re going to have a hard time catching them,” he said.
“I don’t need to catch them,” Mayle said, coming back around the panel, “I just have to stop that assassin from getting in their way.”
He tapped into the optical scanners and switched on the old-fashioned thermal imaging. Without the subspace enhancement, the image wasn’t as clear. But he could still see the bright-yellow signatures of the guards patrolling the fortress and the blazing white signatures of Nacht and his team as they slipped up the wall.
And barely a kilometre from team, in the direction of the Andorian ship, a single figure running towards the fortress.
“Beam me here,” Mayle said, indicating a point just outside the jamming field.
“Good luck,” Vanheath replied as he ran his fingers over the controls.
Mayle materialized on the planet, an unpleasant pins-and-needles sensation telling him he’d beamed in just a bit too close to the jamming field. He quickly oriented himself in the dimming light, then ran full-tilt towards the section of fortress wall that appeared to be his target’s destination. Taking cover behind a bush, he waited for the sound of rustling leaves and breaking branches to tell him his target was approaching.
There was only silence.
He wasn’t sure what it was…some sixth sense, or some tiny sound, but he immediately ducked, just as a razor-sharp blade hissed through the space formerly occupied by his neck.
“Pink-skin!” an alien voice hissed.
Mayle spun around, bringing the phaser rifle up just in time to block another attack.
“Undeveloped planet,” Mayle managed to force out as he rushed to parry the next attack, “Prime Directive…presence is illegal!”
The assassin immediately stopped, held his weapon in a defensive stance and took a step back.
“OK, try that again, human,” the Andorian sneered, “Because that was just pathetic,”
Mayle cleared his throat.
“Ahem. This is an undeveloped Federation planet protected by the Prime Directive,” Mayle said, this time more clearly, “As such, your presence is a violation of the Federation Accords, of which Andor is a signing member,”
“I’m here to remove that interference,” the assassin replied.
“So are we!”
“One human? Against Xixumbas of the 42nd Hive? I think not,”
“I’m not the one here to kill her,” Mayle said.
From the fortress, there came the unmistakable sound of a wolf howl.
Nacht swatted at Paulson, who immediately stopped howling. But it was too late, their stealth approach was ruined. Not that it really mattered, they were mere meters from the keep. Morreth and Paulson jumped through two of the four windows lining the wall, Nacht, Syl and Porkchop following right behind them. Their eyes quickly adjusted to the brighter indoor light just in time for Porkchop and Nacht to dispose of two guards that were moving in for the attack. Syl and Morreth pounced on two more guards before they could react, blood spraying across the stone walls of the keep.
Nacht turned his attention on Xixumbas while Paulson dropped a heavy wooden beam across the doors. The Andorian woman was standing at the far end of the keep, a blinking device about two feet tall humming next to her. She held a short sword in each hand and was clearly expecting trouble.
But it was equally clear she wasn’t expecting five shaggy, snarling beasts.
“I see the Assassin’s Guild is getting more creative,” she said in her lisping Andorian voice, reading her weapons.
Nacht and Morreth exchanged a look. Phasers were one thing, but they hadn’t exactly prepared for swords.
“You cannot stop me,” the assassin was saying, “This contract is far too valuable. Why, the royalties I’ve been offered on future spleen distribution alone could…but never mind,”
He jumped at Mayle again, the human officer barely backpedalling out of the way. Confronting a highly skilled killer entirely on his own suddenly didn’t seem like such a great idea.
“I’m not here to stop you,” he replied, trying to bring his phaser around to stun the alien, but his opponent just slashed at the weapon again, forcing Mayle to choose between stunning the alien but losing a hand (at least) or bringing up the rifle to block the blade.
“Then what-“ the Andorian broke off as the sound of screams and animal roars emerged from the fortress, “You…you snnixxeth!”
He immediately sprinted for the fortress wall, kicking off a conveniently placed rock. Mayle brought up his phaser, but there was a small glow from the heels of the assassin’s boots and he catapulted over the wall and onto the roof of the keep. Anti-grav boots!
Cursing, Mayle slung the phaser rifle and dug the anti-grav unit out of his pack.
“I wish I’d practiced this on the holo-deck,” he groaned. The anti-grav unit was small and rarely used…useful for moving heavy objects or occasionally crossing otherwise un-traversable terrain. Anti-grav boots were far more popular, but the blocky Starfleet versions were almost impossible to run in.
Squeezing his eyes shut, Mayle triggered the unit. The antigrav fired at full power, nearly taking his arms off as it rocketed into the air. He managed to cut the power, only to find himself dozens of meters in the air.
“Well? Shall we do this?” Xixumbas demanded as she stared fearlessly at the Howlers.
Syl’s teeth were bared, and he snarled at the woman before jumping towards her. There was a flash of steel and a rush of fur, then Syl was right back where he’d started, a shallow cut on one flank leaking blood.
“Nice try,” Xixumbas sneered. A thud from the wooden roof caught her attention and she looked up, just for a moment. Morreth and Nacht rushed her simultaneously. She slashed at Nacht, forcing him to jump back. She barely managed to deflect Morreth’s claws, several sharp claw tips clattering to the floor as they were severed by the blade. (Luckily, no fingers went with them.) There was a series of rapid footsteps on the roof, then a second blue figured launched itself through the window.
“I kill you in the name of the Andorian Assassin’s Guild!” the figure screamed, throwing a stiletto-type knife across the room, where it sunk to the hilt into his target. Or rather, into the furry form that had just jumped towards the target.
Porkchop howled in pain as the knife sunk into his back, his arms flailing back to reach the handle, knocking over furniture in the process.
“Oops,” the assassin admitted, reaching for another knife.
“This is your idea of an assassination?” Xixumbas demanded as she dodged nimbly away from Paulson, “This…this…circus!? You are a disgrace to killers across the galaxy!”
There was a loud crash and a spray of splintered wood as Greg Mayle smashed through the roof above Xixumbas, landing directly on the Andorian spleen-master and squashing her flat with a crunch of broken bones.
“Guys…” he groaned, trying and failing to climb off her broken, bloodied corpse, “Watch out…there’s a…bad…uggghhhhh”
The assassin suddenly found himself face facing five bloodied, pissed off beasts as Mayle lost consciousness.
Morreth picked up a heavy chunk of rock that had been dislodged during Mayle’s entrance, hefted it in one hand, then brained the assassin with one quick toss.
While the alien dropped unconscious to the floor, Nacht’s body seemed to deflate as he returned to his diminutive human form. He ran over to Porkchop, running his hand soothingly over the injured Howler’s flank as he wheezed, bubbles of blood on his lips. He pulled the stiletto out with a quick yank, then applied pressure to the wound. Porkchop was still standing, though in obvious pain. Syl quickly mauled Xixumbas’ body, making it look as if some kind of animal had come through the roof and killed Xixumbas. He began reverting back to human form.
“Hmm,” Nacht commented, “I guess if you don’t have a handy skylight, you can just make your own,”
“You couldn’t have come up wit dat rock idea five minutes ago?” Syl asked Morreth.
With the target dead, it was a simple matter for Nacht to switch off the jammer and request beam-up for the team. After a second team quickly retrieved the assassin’s ship, the Farkas slipped away under cover of its sensor-reflective shields, leaving Starfleet to clean up the remaining mess. Mayle and Porkchop were taken to Sickbay and quickly patched up while the remaining Howlers conducted their post-mission clean-up.
But the day wasn’t done yet.
Still limping from his broken legs despite Dr. Wolfman’s treatment, Mayle found himself in the control booth for Cargo Bay 2. Down on the main level one of the ensigns was screaming in surprise as several of the Howlers changed into their beast forms. Rather than disembowelling and devouring the frightened cargo handlers, they simply looked over at Ensign Ianda. She nervously pointed at a rack of survival gear crates and asked them to take it over to Bay 3.
As the Howlers used their superior strength to lift the heavy crates, Mayle heard the door behind him open then close. After a moment, Lt. Cmdr. Travs was standing next to him.
“Commander Belis is furious that you beamed down against orders,” she said frankly.
“I tried telling them that there was a problem,”
“And it’s a good thing, too,” she nodded, “Because the bridge comm logs have already been uploaded to SIHQ. We’ve got them by the short hairs on that one,”
Down on the floor, one of the cargo handlers was nervously approaching Syl. Syl dropped to all fours and allowed himself to be scratched behind the ears. The cargo handler gave a nervous laugh, which turned into a yelp then a giggle as Syl started sniffing at her.
“I know the guys were giving you a hard time about making them do this,” Travs went on, “But I see what you’re trying to do,”
“Great,” Mayle muttered, “I hope the rest of them figure it out,”
“They will,” Travs smiled, “Once they find the case of real Centaurian vodka Ensign Ianda’s having delivered to the Howler’s Den tonight,”
“I don’t remember making that deal with her,” Mayle frowned.
“I did,” Travs replied, “But the guys don’t need to know that, now do they?”
“Well, that was a bit of a disaster,” Commander Belis said darkly as he looked around the conference room table at Captain Harth and Dr. Wolfman.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Harth replied, “We learned that the Howlers are horribly prepared to deal with primitive weapons, after all,”
“We were SUPPOSED to learn how they’d react when they were cut off from their ship, stranded on an alien planet and under attack by an unexpected enemy!” Wolfman complained.
“And we would have, if Mr. Mayle hadn’t decided to run amok,” Belis insisted, pounding on fist on the table, “We should have ordered him to stay on the ship!”
“Mr. Mayle did what he thought he had to do to salvage the team and the mission,” Harth said calmly, “I for one find his actions to be just as interesting as whatever the Howlers might have done if he hadn’t interfered.
“That’s true,” Wolfman admitted slowly, “I’ll have to go over the sensor logs again. The ones where we managed to clear out the jamming, that is.”
“This whole thing is an explosion waiting to happen,” Belis shook his head.
“The Howlers have clearly developed a social hierarchy,” Wolfman insisted, “As long as they show lupine tendencies, we can be reasonably sure that they’ll continue to see superior officers as ‘pack leaders’, so to speak. We’re just lucky they didn’t turn into were-cats…they would have killed us all long ago!”
“You can talk about wolf packs and alpha dogs all you like,’ Belis retorted, “But how do you think they’d react if they knew we’d arranged for Starfleet to let that assassin slip through their patrols?
Now it was Wolfman’s turn to look uncomfortable.
“That would be…bad,” he admitted.
“Then we’ll just make sure that we have a fall guy setup in case they start getting…suspicious,” Harth said, “Now I don’t know about you two, but it’s been a long day. Dr. Wolfman, I’ll expect your report in the morning. Oh, and Belis, see if the Chief Engineer can’t come up with something the Howlers can use to block a sword without blowing their cover. They’re far too rare to get sliced in half.
“Unless it’s in the name of science!” Wolfman added cheerfully.
After leaving the Howlers to their work, Mayle returned to his quarters, ate a quick replicated meal and proceeded to collapse into a tub full of hot, sudsy water. A luxury to be sure, but also part of his prescription from Dr. Wolfman…at least until his bones finished knitting. Felix seemed to be leaving him alone for the moment and instead seemed more interested in sleeping, which was a welcome change. He’d tried sticking him back in his stasis tube after Becky had left the night before, but Felix would have none of it. Short of getting a couple of Howlers to help him hold the animal down (again) there didn’t seem to be any chance of getting the cat back into the bag…so to speak.
He’d barely allowed himself to relax beneath the bubbles when his door chime rang.
“There is NO WAY in hell I’m answer that door,” he mumbled.
There was a hiss from the outer room as the doors opened, then the sound of a very annoyed cat.
“What are you doing??” Travs demanded as she barged into the bathroom, kicking at Felix as he clawed at her ankles.
“I’m relaxing,” he replied, “And hoping I don’t run out of bubbles,”
“I work with Syl,” Travs crossed her arms, “I can see naked men whenever I want to. And sometimes even when I don’t,”
“So you’re not here to check out my wonderful body? HEY!”
Travs had grabbed a bar of soap off the sink and tossed it at him, splashing his face with water and suds.
“The guys are all down in the Den, drinking Centurian vodka and wondering why you’re avoiding them,” she replied.
“I didn’t think they’d want me there,” Mayle admitted, “I mean, it’s sort of a ‘Howler’s Only’ club. And I haven’t exactly been fitting in with them,”
“But you’ve been getting along better with the Farkas crew,” this time it was a towel she tossed in his direction. She turned away so he could dry off and get dressed.
“Well, sort of,” he replied, “I mean, they don’t seem quite as hard to get along with as they did when they thought I was going to…go all wolfy. But the Howlers have been doing the opposite! It’s like…it’s like they don’t trust me anymore,” he finished.
“What you did today showed them that you’re willing to look out for them,” Travs said quietly, “And that you’re willing to risk yourself for them, even when the rest of the idiots on this ship won’t. None of us has seen much of that since we were infected.”
Mayle didn’t have an answer to that. He finished pulling on his off-duty uniform.
“C’mon,” she said, giving his arm a tug, “Let’s go,”
They arrived at the Howler’s Den mess to find the usual post-mission festivities. Snacks and food had been replicated, and several bottles of Centaurian vodka were already half-empty. Syl was running around half-naked, Vors was chewing frantically on a strip of jerky and Paulson and Vanheath were sitting across from each other at a table, several full (and several more empty) shot glasses sitting between them.
“Found him,” Travs announced as she led Mayle into the room.
“Oh good!” Nacht jumped up and rushed over to the small counter next to the replicator, “we got you something!”
Trying not to flinch as Syl and Trimble started sniffing at the back of his neck, Mayle accepted the small box.
“Ok, that’s enough,” Travs said, shooing Syl and Trimble away.
Mayle opened the box, revealing a cheap plastic head strap, to which two fuzzy, triangular dog ears had been attacked.
“It’s not a full change,” Morreth said, fixing the ears on Mayle’s head, “But it is a start!”