Author: Brendan Chris
“Alpha team target is 400 meters, bearing 145,” Ensign Greg Mayle spoke calmly into the comm channel, “Still no indication that you’ve been detected,”
There was a brief, bestial grunt from the channel. Mayle figured it was acknowledgment, but it could have been Team Leader Vanheath telling him to shut up and let them do their jobs.
“Bridge to Mayle,” Lt Cmdr Travs’ voice filled the transporter room, “the Captain wants to know why the target isn’t dead yet,”
Mayle wasn’t exactly happy with his position as the electronic eyes and ears of the Howlers, but he was very grateful that he didn’t have Travs’ current job: standing up on the the bridge and acting as go between to the Captain.
“Alpha Team is tracking the target’s scent and will be in position to strike in five minutes,” Mayle reported, tapping at the planetary scanner controls, Beta Team is…shit!”
Mayle muted the line to the bridge.
“NACHT!” he shouted, “Get your team under control! You’re supposed to be in position to assault the target already!”
The sharp growl that came back over the line didn’t need much interpretation.
“I know I’m not in charge, but the lady who is is on the other line and she’s not happy!” he snapped back.
This time the grunt that came back was half frustrated, half apologetic. On the optical display showing an orbital view of Beta Team’s position, Mayle could see Nacht knock one of his team members over the head with one furry hand-paw.
Closing the channel, Mayle grinned tightly to himself. Maybe staying up on the ship wasn’t so bad after all.
Lt. Nacht, Beta Team leader, followed up his cranial assault on Paulson with a firm shove directed at Ensign Syl. Syl had found a dead alien animal of some kind and was too busy sniffing around the rotting corpse to realize he was actually on a mission. Startled, Syl tucked his tail between his legs, jumped away from the body and turned towards the objective. Nacht took off at a full sprint, checking briefly to ensure his team was behind him.
Back aboard the USS Farkas, Mayle watched Beta Team on his screen as they ran towards their target, counting silently in his head as they moved. He made it to 30, lifted his eyebrows in surprise, then changed the view to Alpha Team. Lt. Vanheath and his team were completely invisible, buried in deep brush. Mayle wouldn’t even know they were there if not for the sensor readouts…and rhythmic shaking of one bush. “Alpha, you have a humper,” Mayle sighed. There was a flash of dark fur, a yelp over the comm, then things settled down. Mayle turned to the panel behind him, added a tally mark under a column labeled ‘tree humping’, then turned back to the Beta Team display.
Beta Team was gone.
Cursing, Mayle brought up the sensor overlay, in case they had hidden themselves as well as Alpha. Nope. But he did pick up Nacht’s comm-badge…ten meters from the objective!
“Shit!” Mayle cursed, “Alpha! Move in! Beta jumped the gun!”
“Mayle,” Travs’ voice barked over the comm, “Why have those guys engaged the target? I haven’t given the go-ahead!”
“Ma’am, Beta skipped their observation period,” Mayle reported, “Alpha is moving to support,”
“Understood,” Travs said tightly. She cut the channel, but less than a second later Captain Harth’s voice was on the comm.
“Belay that, Ensign,” Harth said calmly, “Beam up Alpha immediately. Retrieve Beta when the target has been eliminated.”
The channel cut out again.
Mayle was stunned. Yes, Beta had broken procedure, and somebody’s head was going to roll. But leaving them in hostile territory seemed a little extreme. Heads could literally roll!
Bracing himself, he nodded at the transporter chief. She ran her fingers over the light-bars on the console and the transporter stage filled with shimmering light. The light faded and six snarling, snapping beasts flung themselves at Mayle.
The transporter chief screamed, but the Howler team was flung back by a security force-field.
Morreth, identified by his red shorts, roared at Mayle.
“Relax,” Mayle reassured the chief, “His bark is worse then…um…just relax,” He turned to Morreth, “Captain’s orders,” he said glumly.
Morreth roared at the ceiling, as if to tell the Captain what he thought of the situation.
“You can’t yell at him dressed like this,” Mayle reminded him.
Morreth looked at him again then began to deflate as he returned to his usual Klingon form.
“This has gone far enough!” Morreth snapped as his wolf fangs shrank back into Klingon teeth, “I’m going to see the Captain!”
As he started to storm out, Mayle spoke up again.
“In spandex?” he asked mildly.
Morreth looked down at his skinny, nearly naked body then shrugged.
“In spandex,” he said firmly.
As the remainder of Alpha Team, back in humanoid form, filed out of the transporter room a warbling tone came over the Beta Team channel.
“Beta Team is ready for beam-out,” Mayle said. There was another shimmer of transporter energy and Nacht’s team appeared, covered in blood. They quickly shrank down to normal size, Paulson sputtering and spitting as soon as her human lips reformed.
“YUCK!” she exclaimed, spitting out bits of orange flesh, “Nicondii taste DISGUSTING!”
“And they’re snack-sized,” Porkchop added, “I’m still hungry!”
The transporter chief was turning green.
“I’ll walk you back to your quarters on my way to debriefing,” Mayle offered, gesturing towards the door, “I know it’s a lot to take in on your first day,”
“Get away from me!” she mumbled, rushing out of the room.
“I guess I better send Counselor Tomillo after her,” Mayle commented.
“Hey buddy,” Syl threw a bloody arm over Mayle’s shoulders, “You still got us,”
“Yay,” Mayle sighed.
“That was a disaster!” Travs said loudly, standing at the front of the briefing room in the Howler’s Den, “Nacht…what the hell?”
Lt Nacht brought himself up to his full height (about five foot three) and replied defiantly.
“We were ordered to kill the targets,” he said, “We killed them.”
“You were ordered to perform a coordinated strike with Alpha Team,” Travs snapped, “Not to go off all half-cocked on your own!”
“Alpha Team always get the prey!” Syl spoke up, “We are tired of getting the over-lefts!”
“You don’t get to make that call!” Lt Vanheath almost snarled back at the lower-ranking Howler.
In the back of the room, Mayle watched the disagreement with interest. Nacht was still standing, facing Lt Cmdr Travs. The look on his face was clearly not a pleasant one, and his eyes never left hers. For her part, Travs was mirroring him. The level of tension in the room was ratcheting up, and Mayle didn’t like where it was going.
“You will follow my orders while on a mission,” Travs growled, “Or you will no longer be a part of this team,”
Nacht glared at her for a long moment…one that seemed to drag on for hours. Then, slowly, he averted his gaze and sank back into his seat. Travs let her gaze move over every member of his team, her eyes searching for any signs of defiance as she carefully met their eyes. But with Nacht back in his seat, the rest of his team likewise backed off. One by one, they looked away from Travs’ searching gaze and down towards the floor.
“Good,” she nodded, “Consider yourselves on extra duties for the next two weeks,”
Without a hint of complaint, Beta Team filed out of the briefing room. Alpha Team fired a few smug looks their way as they left. Before she could dismiss Alpha, Travs was interrupted by one of the ship’s security goons as he threw a nearly-naked Morreth into the room.
“The Captain sends his compliments and requests that you have your people dressed and groomed before they present themselves to a superior officer,” the security guy said pleasantly, just before the doors hissed shut.
Travs crossed her arms and glared down at Morreth.
“Did he kick you off the bridge before or after you gave him a piece of your mind?” she asked.
“Before,” Morreth spat.
“Oh good,” Travs gave a sigh of relief, “Then I don’t have to worry about insubordination charges coming down,”
“Oh, I’m still going back up there!” Morreth snapped.
Travs glared at him.
“Or not,” he muttered sheepishly.
“All of you out of here,” Travs snapped, “I need a moment alone. And send up a request to Ship’s Services to get all this orange blood out of the carpet!
“It’s not fair at all,” Mayle was saying, “But it’s true. Alpha team seems to get all the choice assignments, while Beta team generally just provides support,”
His companion gave no reply.
“At first, I thought maybe it was a seniority thing,” Mayle went on, “You know, as Howlers gain experience they get moved into Alpha Team, with Beta being used to train the new guys. Like me.”
Still no reply.
“But I started poking around some of the early mission logs and some of Lt Cmdr Travs’ old reports and orders. And that’s not it. Both teams have a mix of experienced and inexperienced people. And they used to alternate the lead role. So I don’t know what the heck is going on.”
“MMRRRROOOOOWWWWW!!!!” Felix the cat wailed forlornly.
“And none of that from you!” Mayle said sharply, “I’ll let you out of that carrier when you stop trying to rip my face off!”
Felix had had even less success adapting to Mayle’s new living arrangement than Mayle himself. Even though he was incapable of transforming like the rest of the Howlers, either the virus had changed him in such a way as to royally piss off his cat, or Felix was picking up the scent of the other Howlers off him. Either way, Felix was now living in a large, transparent kennel box in one corner of Mayle’s quarters.
At the moment, the fluffy, cream-coloured cat was pacing around the kennel. Every now and then he looked over at Mayle and meowed sadly.
Mayle looked over, catching the cat’s big, blue eyes. His attitude softened.
“Poor kitty,” he mumbled, “I know, you don’t like being locked in there, any more than I like being locked up in this ship.” He paused for a moment. “OK, if you PROMISE not to scratch me, I’ll let you out for a while.”
“I guess that’s as good as I’m going to get,” Mayle chuckled to himself as he got down on all fours to open the kennel. Felix simply sat there, looking back at him as the door opened. Mayle leaned back on his feet, still close to the ground.
“See? There you go.”
Cautiously, Felix rose to his feet and padded out of the kennel, looking up at Mayle.
“That wasn’t so-AUUG!!!”
Without warning, Felix launched himself in the air, clamping his fore-paws to the sides of Mayle’s head, his hind-paws digging into the man’s shoulders as the cat hissed in fury.
“Do you hear that?” Ensign Syl asked as he walked with Paulson through the corridors of the Farkas, “It almosts sounds like screaming,”
“That’s just your PTSD kicking in from ripping that Nicondii’s head off,” Paulson said dismissively, “Don’t worry about it,”
“But I don’t have the STDs,” Syl frowned, “I had myself checked after-“
“Stop” Paulson raised her hand, “I meant…geez! What planet are you from, anyway??”
“Quebec,” Syl said proudly.
“Never heard of it,”
“C’est a wonderful place,” Syl looked slightly nostalgic, “Good food, good wine, wonderful culture, and lots of belle women that really like to f-“
Paulson smacked him upside the head before he could finish.
“Sorry I asked.”
They stepped into the turbolift, Mayle’s cries unheard.
“Can I interest you in a new pet?” Mayle said politely to the nurse as she ran a dermal regenerator over his badly scratched face, “A cat, perhaps?”
“Nice try,” the brunette nurse chuckled, “But I like my pets a little less…fatal.”
“He’s only been like this since…you know. But he’s really nice with other people. People who aren’t Howlers, anyway,”
“Aww, he just needs time to adjust. Don’t you, pussums?”
She turned to the nearby table, where Felix was caged in a small carrier. He’d had to be forcibly removed from Mayle’s head, managing to claw up Dr. Wolfman in the process.
“Ahh, Ensign. I see your familiar has not yet succeeded in causing permanent damage,” a dry, cold voice spoke.
Mayle turned to see Lt. Soruk, Wolfman’s counterpart on the USS Farkas’ science team.
“What do you want?” Mayle asked bluntly. He and Soruk didn’t exactly get along. In fact, none of the Howlers especially liked Soruk. Or Wolfman. Or anybody else on the science team that was ‘studying’ them.
“I simply came down to offer my wishes that you may have a rapid recuperation,” Soruk replied. The nurse, perhaps noticing the sudden tension, said nothing as she continued to repair the deep cuts to his flesh.
“Uh-huh,” Mayle muttered.
“Nurse,” Soruk said firmly, “Please leave two cuts to heal naturally. The incision just in front of the sphenoid bone, and the gash above the right orbit. Thank you.”
“What, you just want me to let him walk out of here bleeding all over the place??” the nurse broke her silence, looking at the Vulcan like he was crazy. Mayle, for his part, was giving a look of pure murder.
“Of course not,” Soruk said, looking down his nose, “I expect you to stop the bleeding and suture the wound. But no dermal regeneration. I wish to study Mr. Mayle’s regeneration rate compared to the transformative Howlers,”
With that, he turned and began walking away.
“What if it scars??” Mayle shouted after him, “My pretty face! It’ll never be the same!”
“Your cosmetic concerns are irrelevant,” Soruk called back as he left, missing Mayle’s sarcasm.
“Asshole!” Mayle fumed.
“I agree,” the nurse said, shaking her head as she started digging around for a needle and surgical thread, “And normally I’d tell him to go to hell. Except our orders from the Captain are ‘full and total cooperation’ with the science team. And the doctor just encourages this crap.
“Wonderful,” Mayle winced as she went to work. Despite the antiquated technique, the nurse had the first wound stitched up quickly.
“Hey,” she said, placing one hand on his arm, “He didn’t say anything about after he’s done his stupid study. Just come see me when he’s done and I’ll take care of any scarring for you.” She grinned, “No charge,”
“Thanks,” Mayle smiled.
“Nurse Bayles,” she offered, “Carolyne Bayles,”
“Greg Mayle,” he replied. He winced again as she started sewing up the second gash, “And you’ve met Felix. Sure you don’t want him?”
“Positive,” Nurse Bayles said.
The next day, after stopping by the science lab to have his cuts checked (and making a few remarks about the mating habits of certain members of the science team) Mayle reported to Holodeck 2 for that days training. The holodeck was already active, simulating some strange of mix of docking bay and fancy lobby that was confusing the heck out of him.
“Today,” Travs was saying loudly, “We will be training in a contained, orbital environment. We’re not likely to see a lot of these with the missions Starfleet Intelligence has been sending us on lately, but better safe than sorry. Your targets are staying in the Honeymoon Suite. We’ve got the Betazoid Boys. Holograms, of course,”
“That really annoying boy band? They’re not married!” Ensign Porkchop pointed out, “At least, not to each other. Are they?”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Mayle chuckled.
“Lt Vanheath submitted their names,” Travs replied, “Besides, we’ve got ‘Brangalina’ up next week, as soon as I figure out who that is and what planet she’s from,”
“So suddenly Vanheath is picking our targets?” Nacht demanded.
“You’ll get your turn!” Travs snapped. “Anyway, we’re in an orbital hotel complex above Risa: the Jamahoran Jumperplex. Risan names, right?”
“There’s an orbital skydiving jump platform on level 22,” a passing holographic staffer said helpfully.
“And your secondary mission objective is now to kill that guy,” Travs grumbled, “OK, Alpha team is up first. Beta, we’ll get to you later.”
“Hold it,” Nacht said, “We did this last time. Beta didn’t even get a run, training was cut short cuz the Farkas hit an ion storm!”
“The odds of that happening again are…are really bad,” Morreth said stiffly, “Obey orders,”
The tension in the room started to rise again.
“Why don’t they both go at once?” Mayle jumped in, “Start them each in a different docking bay, then see who gets to the target first!”
Everybody was staring at Travs.
“Very well,” she decided, “But the loser gets to clean all the spandex after the next mission.”
“Acceptable,” Nacht said. Vanheath nodded.
“Then let us begin.”
As soon as the go-ahead was given, Beta Team dashed down the hallway at full speed, Nacht in the lead.
“Where are we going?” Paulson gasped as she ran behind him.
“Far away from Alpha,” Nacht replied immediately.
“Take your time,” Syl said, a slightly sinister grin on his face as he watched the shapely woman’s behind bounce.
Porkchop, bringing up the rear, said nothing. He kept looking over his shoulder, hunting for signs of pursuit.
“You guys do realize you’re in a luxury hotel, right?” Mayle’s voice spoke into their ear pieces, “You’re standing out. Slow down, look like you’re on your way to dinner or something.”
“This is a Risan hotel,” Nacht said, “And I think it is the wrong time for dinner service.”
“Risan. Right. Then look like you’re on your way to an orgy! Who cares!”
“Roger, Mailman,” Nacht acknowledged, slowing his pace, ducking around a corner and trying to look nonchalant as he entered a larger concourse.
“Better,” Mayle sounded relieved, “Now there’s…whoops! Gotta talk to Alpha, back in a bit!”
“Who’s side is he on, anyway?” Porkchop demanded as he fell into step with the others. Nacht didn’t reply. “I said-“
“I heard you,” Nacht said, “Don’t worry about it,”
“We need a plan,” Nacht went on, “A way up to the honeymoon suite,”
“I guess doing the wild animal rampage thing isn’t going to work here,” Paulson said, looking around at the crowds of well-dressed hotel guests (and barely dressed Risan employees) as they went about their recreational business.
“We’ll have to get closer,” Nacht said, “onto that floor at least.” He pressed his earpiece, passing the gesture off to casual observers as a brush of his hair, “Mailman, Beta. Can you look up the service access to the upper levels?”
“Already in front of me,” Mayle’s voice replied, “The service lift is…what? That’s not…but….OK,”
“What’s wrong?” Nacht demanded.
“I can’t tell you about the service lift,” Mayle sounded pissed, “Apparently, since Alpha is already-“
His voice broke up in a crackle of static.
“No cheating,” Captain Harth’s voice came over the comm, “Which means you can’t copy Alpha’s ideas, and you can’t hear about their plans from your little friend!”
The channel closed. Despite all their prompts, they were unable to raise Mayle again.
“That ASSHOLE!” Nacht seethed, “How are we supposed to do this without any support!”
“Easy,” Paulson said, her eyes locking on a group of strangely dressed humans, “We do this the old fashioned way!”
Ten minutes later, the elegant metal and glass elevator was rising from the lobby and shopping complex through a transparent tube towards the module of the orbital hotel that contained the guest suites. In it was a woman dressed as a French maid, a man in a yellow suit of military cut and two other men in green and purple suits respectively.
“I don’t even want to know why these people were dressed like this,” Paulson said, trying once again to move without her bosom jumping out of the skimpy outfit.
“They said they were going to a murder mystery party,” Syl offered helpfully, “Before we hit them on the heads and stole their vetements…cloths.”
“And room keys,” Nacht said, holding up an electronic wafer, “Whatever. Moving freely around the hotel with their keys while Alpha screws around in the service areas means we might just get there first!
They stepped out of the elevator into the top level of suites. A couple of turns later and they found themselves moving down a long corridor. Starry vistas were visible at the far ends, looking out into space.
“It’s right up ahead,” Nacht said “Porkchop, fire up the security scrambler, we can’t chance anybody catching us on camera. Get ready to change!”
A group of people dressed in scanty Risan uniforms stepped around a corner ahead of them. Very familiar people!
“Back off, Nacht,” Lt Vanheath said, wincing as his generous body hair tangled in the Risan mesh, designed for a less furry people, “This is an Alpha Team mission!”
“Uh, no, this is a competitive mission,” Nacht said, “We were here first!”
They were almost nose-to-nose, right in front of the door of the honeymoon suite.
“How do we settle this, then?” Vanheath asked.
Mayle was watching his screen with wide eyes. Vanheath and Nacht weren’t looking at each other like two friends in different units. They were looking at each other like…like a pair of alpha males ready to battle it out over a tasty kill.
“If I’d known this would happen, I never would have suggested a contest,” he groaned out loud.
“Well after the captain heard you say it, there was no going back,” Morreth grunted. The two of them were at a workstation in the Howler’s Den, Mayle providing support and Morreth acting as the link between the two teams and Lt Comd Travs via an open comm channel to the bridge.
“He knows a good idea when he hears it,” First Officer Belis’ voice came over the comm, “Science officer, make sure we have redundant recordings running. Who knows when we’ll get an opportunity like this again!”
“Opportunity,” Mayle muttered to himself. And a very convenient one, too. In fact…
He started tapping at his panel, closing the surveillance feed and opening the holodeck command history. The Howlers weren’t allowed to access the holodeck controls during a simulation; the only changes were made by Travs or Morreth as they conducted the training scenario…but all the senior officers had access.
And there it was, bright as day. Commands entered by Lt Soruk to adjust the timings of the guest elevator and service lift so that both teams would reach the Honeymoon Suite at the same time. And cutting off the Beta Team comm channels.
There wasn’t time to tell Morreth what he’d found. Instead, he accessed the holodeck control systems himself.
Nacht felt fur spreading across his skin as the changes began, his rage with Vanheath building to the point where he was losing control. Vanheath might have been starting his change as well…or it just might have been his normal body hair. He could hear squishing, crackling noises as his team also started to change.
This was about to get bloody.
“Hold on to something,” Mayle’s voice suddenly spoke in his ear.
Syl, Porkchop and Paulson all grabbed onto the decorative fixtures running along the halls. Vanheath looked confused for a moment, then he heard a loud crack behind him. He barely had time to turn to look when the window at the far side of the hall shattered. A maelstrom of wind jumped to life as the corridor began to decompress. Nacht was pulled half a foot before jerking to a stop, both Syl and Paulson grabbed his arms before he could be pulled down the hall. Alpha Team wasn’t so lucky, tumbling towards the window for several seconds before the emergency bulkheads slammed shut: one in front of the window…and another between the two teams.
“CHANGE!” Nacht snapped. Fur, claws and fangs began sprouting from the quartet, each of them giving an unearthly howl as the transformation completed itself.
“What is all this RACKET?” a high-pitched, male voice snapped as the doors to the Honeymoon Suite opened, “Hey, you with the muscles! Get out here and tell these…oh.”
Nacht bared his teeth at the slightly effeminate Betazoid male as his eyes widened in fear.
Mayle turned his monitor off just before the boy band, their groupies (or prostitutes, who knew with celebrities) and even their security goons were reduced to bloody shreds.
“I’d like to be able to eat tonight, thanks,” he said to himself.
“So, Beta Team wins,” Morreth said, getting to his feet.
“Nothing wrong with that,” Mayle said, pointing a finger up, then to his ear “Just some friendly competition.”
Morreth’s face darkened as he understood the implication: Big Brother is listening.
“And if Starfleet or the Klingon High Command was running this ship, they’d approve,” Morreth said, “But with Intelligence in charge, who knows?”
“Starfleet Intelligence doesn’t operate much differently than Starfleet, most of the time,” Mayle replied.
“Most of the time,” Morreth agreed. They were quiet for a moment.
“I wonder why that viewport chose that moment to break,” Morreth said thoughtfully.
“No clue,” Mayle lied, “Probably something that one of the science guys slipped into the scenario. Some test or other,”
“You’re probably right,” Morreth nodded.
But the look on his face did not match his casual tone.
Days passed, and despite a busy training schedule the Howlers’ dance card was surprisingly empty. No mission had come down in nearly two weeks, not since they’d been assigned to convince a group of Bolian smugglers that a certain planet was too dangerous to be used as a meeting place. The planet happened to have a Starfleet Intelligence outpost on one of its moons, but using the Howlers to…discourage…the smugglers was a lot simpler and less likely to go sideways than getting actual SI agents involved.
Unfortunately, the extra downtime meant that certain Howlers were having issues controlling themselves.
“Both Porkchop and Vorns were in the galley last night, fighting over the last of the Rokeg Blood Pie Crewman Korth had brought on board,” Tomillo read off a list, “Paulson has a sexual harassment complaint against her from Ensign Phey,”
“Ensign Phey is a Sylvian,” Mayle said dryly, “The pheromones-“
“Pheromones or no, Ensign Pauslon will have to learn to control herself,” Tomillo cut him off, “So will Ensign Syl,”
“Who’s leg did he hump this time?” Mayle closed his eyes.
“Ensign Phey,” Tomillo replied, “Which is the next item on the list: Ensign Phey also has a sexual harassment complaint in against Ensign Syl,”
“I actually find that less surprising than the complaint against Paulson,” Mayle admitted. He leaned forward, “Look, Counselor, we both know that whatever it is that’s infected the Howlers, whatever it is that made them, it’s having an effect on them whether they’re in animal form or not.”
“That’s not excuse,” Tomillo started, but Mayle cut her off.
“We also know,” he went on, “that the science staff on this ship is far more interested in experimenting on them than curing them. Now can you really look me in the eye and say it’s not reasonable that we cut these guys some slack?”
“These guys?” Tomillo repeated, one brow arched, “Have you forgotten than you are also infected?”
“You wouldn’t know it to look at me,” Mayle countered, “C’mon, Counselor, we both know that Ensign Phey’s complaints wouldn’t hold up if the adjudicator knew what was being done to the Howlers,”
“Which is why the Captain is handling them,” Tomillo’s demeanor had suddenly cooled, “This is a highly classified matter, and you’re supposed to be helping resolve issues with the Howlers, not threatening the security of our operation,”
“Hey, I’m not threatening anything,” Mayle raised his hands, “I just-“
“I think we’re done for today,” Tomillo said, “The only other matter is Ensign Nacht and Lt Vanheath getting into two more fights, but given that no regular crewmen were involved I think we can leave that to you people to sort -“
Her padd beeped, indicating a message or announcement.
“Sorry,” she said. She looked at the padd for a moment. “Hmm. The Farkas will be putting in to Starbase 59 next week. That’s good timing! With most of the crew off the ship, you should be able to relax and unwind a bit. Get some of the resentment out of your systems.”
“Yeah, we haven’t had shore leave in ages,” Mayle suddenly felt a lot happier.
“Oh, the Howlers will be confined to the ship again, I suspect,” Tomillo said, “They always are.”
“You’re enough of a risk to this ship and crew. Imagine what would happen if we set you loose in an actual civilized environment!” Tomillo tittered, “Anyway, I think we’re done for today. Good bye!”
“Look, I don’t think we-“
Tomillo tapped a button under her desk. Immediately, her door opened and a burly security guard stepped in, phaser in hand.
“Right, I’m going,” Mayle growled, walking past the guard without so much as a glance.
“No, we haven’t been to a starbase in close to six months,” Paulson said. She and Mayle were relaxing in a pair of loungers in Grandma’s back yard. Grandma’s Cottage was a favorite holodeck program for the Howlers, offering good food, good drink, plenty of outdoor space for running around (as human or beast) and, for certain individuals, the chance to put on Grandma’s pajamas and wait for Little Red Riding Hood to show up. Granted she was also a hologram, albeit one with a random timer set to bring her about at unexpected times, but usually at least once a week somebody would go tearing through the cottage chasing after the screaming youth. Sadly (or fortunately?) she always escaped.
“Really?” Mayle frowned, “Nurse Bayles said the Farkas was at Starbase 18 four months ago. And you stopped at Deep Space Nine to pick me up,”
“Four months ago the ship was quarantined for Xenxian fungal spores,” Paulson said, “But yeah…I guess we must have picked you up somewhere. I wonder why they never told us?”
Mayle braced himself.
“It’s because they don’t want you guys going on leave,” he said, “But I don’t think they want to deny you outright, so they just…make sure you don’t know about it,”
“That’s a dick move!” Paulson declared, “We haven’t been off this ship in months! If we’re stopping by Starbase 59, I want to go stretch my legs!” “But the question,” Mayle asked, “is how do we do it without alert the rest of the ship?”
“That’s the easy part,” Paulson said, “The hard part is doing it without Nacht and Vanheath tearing each other to pieces.”
“We’ll need to have a chat with Lt Comd Travs as before we hit the base,” Mayle said, “Oh, and by the way, what DID happen with you and Crewman Phey?”
“It was completely consensual,” Paulson snapped, pointing a finger at Mayle’s face, “I just…things were getting really heated and I sort of…accidentally…started changing halfway through.”
“Oh,” Mayle swallowed, “Ew.”
“Yeah. He sort of freaked.”
“And how did Syl get involved?”
“He heard what Phey called me and went out for revenge,”
“Humping somebody’s leg isn’t exactly harsh revenge,”
“Syl was dealing with those Bolian lice he picked up on the last mission.”
“Oh,” Myle swallowed again, “Remind me not to piss him off,”
“Commander Belis to Lt Comd Travs. We’re nearing our approach to the pulsar. Are all your people accounted for? We are expecting higher radiation in the outer compartments and don’t want anybody exposed.”
“Yeah,” Travs replied, “They’re all down in the holodeck, except for Mayle, Morreth and myself. We’re in the Den monitoring the holodeck. We’re going to run the Risan simulation again. Alpha team is convinced they could have beaten Beta if that window hadn’t blown,”
“Very well,” Belis replied.
“Too bad our stop at the starbase was cancelled,” she said casually.
“I’m sure we’ll make it up later. Belis out,”
“How convenient,” Travs muttered, “Lying scumbag,”
Next to her, Mayle tapped at a tricorder.
“Ships sensors show heightened radiation and that we’re maintaining a stable orbit,” he said, “But the tricorder tells me we’re docked at a starbase. Only twenty or so life-signs still on the Farkas, the rest are probably on the starbase already. They’re sending us false readings,”
“They really don’t want to let us out,” Morreth crossed his arms.
“If Tomillo hadn’t let slip we were stopping, we wouldn’t even know,” Mayle said.
“I really need this break,” Travs sighed, “I don’t know why, but it seems the past few weeks they’ve been keeping me extra busy. I’ve barely seen the whole squad in two weeks!”
“I guess they just love having you up on the bridge,” Mayle smirked.
“Hmm,” Travs rubbed her chin thoughtfully, “Travs to Vanheath. Begin phase one,”
Lt Vanheath and Ensign Nacht were standing in a storage room just down the corridor from Transporter Room Two. Oh, something that looked like them was down in the holodeck, and in fact there were even life sign readings down there that resembled them. But sitting in the holodeck while everybody else took leave was not part of the plan.
“OK, Trimble will distract the transporter operator, then we will go in and beam everybody over,” Vanheath was saying.
“I still think we should have made for the docking port,” Nacht said, “The transporter is too easily traced,”
“And the docking port will have too much traffic,” Vanheath shot back, “We might sneak one or two people out, but not a dozen,”
“Are you kidding? Nobody’s going to be back for at least three hours,”
“Gentlemen?” Mayle’s voice came over their earpieces, “Suggest we get going,”
“Copy, Mailman,” Vanheath said. He rose and started walking for the transporter room.
“No, I’m sure it was something important!” Trimble’s voice could be heard, “I TOLD the maintenance guy that after he spilled coffee on it, but he just shrugged and said it was part of the…the…I don’t know, something unimportant,”
“You can’t remember what it was, but you know it wasn’t important?” the transporter chief, an unfamiliar female, responded, following Trimble down the corridor.
“Well OBVIOUSLY I thought it might be important, or I wouldn’t be bugging you to come take a look!” Trimble was doing a great job of sounding exasperated.
“Perfect,” Vanheath said as they ducked into the transporter room and started tapping at the controls, “See? That’s the kind of varied skill set you need to be giving your guys. You never know what the mission could be,”
“My guys would have done just fine!” Nacht said indignantly.
“Syl would have ended up accused of sexual assault again,” Vanheath chuckled, “And Porkchop would have tried eating her,”
“Oh, and Vorns would have done all the better? Screaming at her for an hour?”
“That’s why I didn’t use Vorns,” Vanheath replied.
“And why I would have used Paulson. So there,”
Vanheath gave him an annoyed look.
“Setting coordinates,” he said, “We’ll beam in here, near some docking ports on the opposite side of the station,”
“Entering clearance,” Nacht said. Being a Starfleet Intelligence ship had its advantages…such as certain security codes that would prevent the station from wondering about errant transporter beams.
There was a shimmer of transporter sparks, then the twelve Howlers appeared in what was supposed to be an out-of-the-way corner of an arrivals concourse near a series of docking ports.
“Do I have 800 credits? 800 credits here? 800 credits. Do I have 900? 900 credits? Going once? Going twice? Sold, to the Bolian lady,”
“Thank you so much for participating,” a neatly dressed man said to Lt Morreth, handing him a card, “You’ll be entertaining that kind lady there for the evening. Who’s next?”
Nacht cleared his throat and pointed at a sign. They’d apparently materialized in the middle of the 3rd Annual Charity Auction.
“You’ve just been raffled off for the evening in support of Bendii syndrome,” Lt Cmd Travs chuckled as the Howlers quickly cleared the stage, to the amusement of the crowd.
“As long as it’s for a good cause?” Morreth said uneasily as his bidder came to claim him, “I suppose the comic book shop will still be open later,”
“Have fun!” Travs giggled and waved.
“OK boys,” she said to her team commanders, “I’m off to a spa treatment,”
As she left, Nacht and Vanheath looked at each other.
“Pub crawl in the lower decks?” Nacht asked, “Out of the way, not likely to run into the other crewmembers?”
“Suit yourself,” Vanheath looked down his nose at the other team leader, “we’re heading to the recreation levels for the triathlon,”
“You’re definitely going to run into people from the Farkas there,” Mayle piped up.
“So?” Vanheath gave a gesture. His team immediately reached into their backpacks, pulling out wigs and makeup. In less than thirty seconds, they were all but unrecognizable.
“OK, whatever,” Nacht muttered, turning away.
“Yeah, have fun wasting your time,” Vanheath waved as he led his team towards a turbolift.
“Does anybody want to go and spend their vacation time running, swimming, and sweating their asses off?” Nacht asked his team.
There was a unanimous shaking of heads.
“To the pubs and clubs!” Syl announced loudly.
“We’re not really doing the triathlon, are we?” Ensign Packman asked, “I didn’t bring a change of clothes,”
“Don’t be silly, of course we’re not,” Vanheath shook his head, “But Beta Team doesn’t need to know that,”
“Clever, boss,” Crewman Johnson said.
“You know it,” Vanheath chuckled, “Now, where’s the nearest steakhouse?”
Mouths immediately began watering.
“Let’s find a Klingon one, they’re the only race that understand the importance of rare meat,”
“Gorn! Got to be Gorn!”
“You’re crazy! Let’s get Andorian! Steak AND organ meats!”
“GENTLEMEN!” Vanheath cut off the argument, “You’re missing a key fact: The question is not ‘Which steakhouse do we eat at?’. The question is ‘Which steakhouse do we eat at…first?’!”
The casual passerby might have been frightened at the look of feral hunger in the team’s eyes. In fact, several were.
Captain Evan Harth, Commander Belis and their senior officers were seated in The View, a moderately upscale restaurant looking out into the starbase hanger bay. Every starbase had several such restaurants, so the venue itself was no mystery. Why there were images of the same half-dozen middle-aged women plastered all over the walls was, however. A few docking slips away the USS Farkas was nestled up to a series of support umbilical while suited dock workers performed maintenance on one of the nacelles.
In many ways, Starbase 59 was exactly the same as every other starbase. One of the huge, standard double-mushroom shaped stations, there was a command center on top of a huge main docking bay, with a central core for shops, repair facilities, crew and visitor quarters and et cetera. Further down the shaft was a smaller section with cargo processing and smaller docking areas. Every station had its own character, and Starbase 59 seemed to have taken on the preference for automation predominant on its host planet. Almost everything that didn’t require a living person was performed by machine.
“Another mission well done,” Harth said cheerfully, raising a glass of something blue, “Congratulations to all.”
“Congratulations to the Howlers,” Commander Belis seconded, a bitter note in his voice,”
“Problem, Commander?” Dr. Brent Wolfman asked as he perused the menu.
“Not at all,” Belis replied, sipping his drink.
Lt Soruk, the Vulcan science officer, lifted an eyebrow.
“You are lying,” he said flatly.
“Hey,” Harth wagged a finger playfully in Soruk’s direction, “Holding something back isn’t lying,”
“And accusing one of lying isn’t polite dinner conversation,” Counselor Diane Tomillo added.
“I apologize,” Soruk said, sounding as if he were reading from a script, “But you do appear to be hiding something,”
Belis contemplated his menu for a moment, then tapped his finger against a Bolian pasta dish. The menu chimed politely and he set it aside. He looked around, ensured nobody was listening, then spoke in a low voice.
“Our mission,” Belis said darkly, “was to kill six Federation citizens. And we accomplished that by using a troop of circus freaks that belong in an isolation lab, not running amok!”
“Our mission,” Harth said in the same low tone, “was to eliminate a group with known and proven ties to an illicit organ-harvesting ring responsible for killing or crippling dozens of innocent beings. And who happens to have some very highly priced and corrupt lawyers.”
“Which could have been accomplished with a single well-placed photon torpedo,”
“That,” Chief Engineer Xi’Strix twitched his antennae, “Is like comparing a priceless work of art with a child’s finger painting.”
“Trust an Andorian to compare death with art,” Belis sneered.
“Trust a human to think there is a difference,”
“Gentlemen,” Soruk broke in, “This is not a secure location for such a conversation,”
“You’re right, of course,” Belis agreed, too quickly. “I did try to avoid discussing this, as you may recall,”
“I understand,” Soruk conceded.
“Let’s just enjoy our meal,” Harth proclaimed as a small automated cart came around with several steaming dishes, “We can worry about all this super-secret life-or-death stuff later,”
As they dug into their dinner, Belis kept glancing towards a row of windows that looked into Ring Review, the starbase promenade. At one point he could have sworn he saw a male that looked exactly like Lt Vanheath, only with red hair and a beard.
“Too much time thinking about work,” he muttered. Time to contemplate the drink menu a little more thoroughly.
“You see them? Packman muttered.
“Roger,” Vanheath muttered back, “To our four o’clock. Looks like all the senior officers are having a nice dinner on their first night of leave,”
“All the senior officers except for the Chief of Security,” Ensign Perry Trimble pointed out. He was a tall but very slim male of mixed heritage that looked like he’d blow over in a strong wind.
“Naturally,” Packman grunted, “The Chief of Security is a Howler, after all. Better to keep her on the ship in a kennel with the rest of the animals.”
“Come on, guys,” Vanheath guided them towards a restaurant that proclaimed itself to have the best fangor-beast steak in the quadrant, “Let’s just let those bastards have their fun. While we have ours.”
With the scent of raw and seared meat wafting out the door, nobody was about to argue with him.
“Maybe we should have something to eat before we start drinking,” Porkchop wondered as Beta Team settled themselves into The Beta Brewery. (The name was just a coincidence, referring to automatic beer-brewing machines that allowed one to experiment, but had resulted in said brewery being the first stop on their pub crawl.)
“Why?” Syl asked in his heavily accented Standard, “You didn’t eat enough on the last mission?”
“We’ve been over that,” Porkchop groaned, “It doesn’t matter how many Nicondii you eat, you’re always hungry again in half an hour! And that mission was days ago,”
“Look, they’ve got appetizers,” Mayle pointed out.
“Get what you wants,” Syl said, cracking his fingers, “I am trying the auto-brewer,”
“This seems dangerous,” Paulson said. She examined the panels on the automatic beer-making device, and pulled up the pre-programmed beer list.
“Grasshopper,” she mused, “sounds Denobulan. Nope, Canadian. Hmm. I have no idea what a ‘Matrian’ is, so there’s no way I’m trying their beer.”
“Ugh,” Nacht shook his head, “Seeta, you know you’re going to look through about fifty different choices, then fall back on the exact same thing you always drink,”
“A cosmo,” Porkchop giggled, “Like a girl!”
“Which isn’t even a beer,” Mayle pointed out.
“At least one of us can be a sophisticated lady,” Paulson said dryly. She tapped a few buttons, then a bright red drink was dispensed into a martini glass.
“Yeah. Right.” Porkchop said. He pulled up the auto-brew menu, then hit a bunch of buttons at random, including a disclaimer that stated there was no refunds for failed drink experiments. The machine hissed, bubbled and wheezed. After a moment, a thick, black fluid dribbled out into a pint-sized glass.
Porkchop lifted in, then took a sip. The taste was somewhere between crushed cockroach and cat poop.
“Delicious,” he managed to say.
Mayle fiddled around with his own panel, noticing he could adjust everything from level of carbonation to source grains, yeast species, hops, additives and almost everything else. He was trying to decide between a Terran wheat and a similar Vulcan strain when Syl turned to face him.
“I do not think we have talked about the Risan holodeck mission,” he said without preamble,”
“Why would we?” Mayle asked, picking the Vulcan grain and debating his choice in hops.
“It wasn’t the science team that made the viewport to break,” Syl said, “You warned us. You knew,”
“What’s your point, Syl?” Mayle asked.
“You are on our side,” Syl shrugged, “It is good to know,”
Mayle tapped the ‘brew’ button and the machine began to whir.
“I’m on the Howlers side,” he corrected Syl, “I don’t care about Alpha vs. Beta.”
“Alpha always gets the best missions,” Porkchop broke in, overhearing their conversation, “The best targets,”
“And why do you think that is?” Mayle asked.
“They think they’re better than us,” Syl replied with a shrug.
“Really. So they assign themselves the best missions?”
His beer emerged from the machine and Mayle took a sip. Then a larger chug. Syl, without asking, took a taste himself.
“Excellent,” he admitted.
“I might have to get me one of these machines,” Mayle agreed.
Porkchop poured his drink into a nearby plant and started tapping at his panel, glancing over at Mayle’s screen.
“As long as Alpha has more senior people and more experience, they’ll always get the best missions,” Nacht complained, halfway into his second drink already, “And as long as they get the best missions, they’ll have more senior people and more experience. It’s a vicious circle. The egg and the turkey.”
“But,” Mayle started to object, only to be interrupted by Syl.
“Show me how you made that beer,”
“Can we just not talk about work?” Paulson asked, throwing back the last of her cosmo and ordering another, “Mayle, what’s the deal with you and Becky Ianda? Weren’t you two going out?”
“No,” Mayle said, “Uh, here, Syl. Why don’t let me program this in for you?”
“Can you make mine French?” Syl asked, “Quebec French, not Paris French,”
“Uh…OK. What’s different with Quebec beer?”
“There has to be a lot of it.”
While Beta Team’s experiments grew more daring, Alpha Team was moving on to steakhouse number two.
Called ‘DoH Hom’ (roughly translated, Off the Bone), the place was clearly Klingon, though they would apparently serve anything that could be eaten. Free bloodwine was advertised for anybody who brought in their own kills. Their theme was ‘Ha’Dlbah vegh quantaHvIS’ (Meat Through the Ages) and their walls were decorated with everything from jagged stone knives to polished spears right up to flamethrowers and energy-based heating rays.
The proprietor, a swarthy Klingon named Rar, came right up.
“I warn you,” he grumbled in a low, rough voice, “If you request your meat served ‘well done’, you will be asked to leave. And by asked, I mean forced. And by forced, I mean…”
He grabbed one of the strange devices off the wall, aimed it at a nearby plant and pulled the trigger. For a moment nothing happened, then the plant started to steam…then wilt…then burst into flames.
“Ok, where do I get one of those?” Ensign Packman asked, clapping his hands with glee.
Vanheath shoved him behind the rest of the group, then turned to Rar.
“We don’t want our meat cooked,” he snapped, “Period. Now show us to our table and bring us something…bloody.”
“HAH!” Rar’s attitude changed immediately as he slapped Vanheath on the back and pointed at a heavy wooden table, “Words I hear far too rarely on this…this…vegetarian station!”
“What’s the Klingon word for ‘vegetarian’?” Trimble wondered.
“There isn’t one,” Rar snarled cheerfully, storming off to the kitchen.
They had barely managed to get themselves seated when Rar returned with a wooden platter bearing a raw, bloody haunch of meat. He slammed it down in the middle of the table, then stepped back to watch.
Alpha Team might have noticed that the entire restaurant had gone quiet as the other patrons, most of whom were enjoying medium-rare to medium cooked meals, stared at them. A table of Klingons were baring their teeth, no double eager to see the weakling humans turn green and ask for something cooked.
If so, they were disappointed. With a single, fluid move, Crewman Johnson grabbed a heavy blade from the table, carved off a long, thin slice of meat and flung it at Vorns. With a cry of delight, Vorns caught it with his teeth, blood spattering Trimble as the meat swung in his jaws. It fell to his plate, a bite-sized piece missing, and he immediately attacked it with his own knife. Before he’d taken a second bite, another piece was flying at Vanheath, then Packman and the remaining team members.
Cries of ‘Quapla’ rose from the Klingon table while the remaining tables turned away in disgust.
Rar, on the other hand, laughed loudly and went to get some complimentary bloodwine.
“Sounds like the Klingon place is the place to be tonight,” Captain Harth observed, hearing the loud shouts coming from the general direction of the DoH Hom.
“We could always head over there for drinks after,” Dr. Wolfman suggested.
“Are you kidding?” Counselor Tomillo asked, sipping her wine, “I’d rather keep at least an ounce of class, thank you,”
Commander Belis stared out into the Ring Review, a frown on his face.
“Excuse me,” he said, “I need to use the facilities.”
“You have got to be kidding,” Paulson hiccuped.
“Drink it!” Syl urged, “Be a brave!”
Porkchop, for his part, was contemplating a greenish-brown pint of something he’d somehow managed to coax from the auto-brewer.
“Maybe you got the station’s sewer lines instead,” Mayle suggested.
“Drink!” Nacht called from somewhere below the table. After something called a ‘Singularity’ he’d vowed to stick to Earth beers from the old United States of America…generally considered the weakest, lowest-alcohol beer in the known galaxy.
“Go for it,” Paulson shrugged, “Worst thing that happens is you black out.”
“No the worst thing that happens is he pukes on the floor. Which is much comfier without vomit,” Nacht’s voice wafted up.
Porkchop gripped the table for a moment, stared into the drink, then grabbed it, closed his eyes and took a swallow. His eyes popped open.
“It’s actually really good,” he said, “Sort of an…apple flavour?”
Syl took the glass and took a gulp. He heaved, then spit it out on the floor.
“Hey,” Nacht complained.
“It takes like…like…merde canard!”
“Duck shit,” Mayle translated helpfully.
“Well I liked it,” Porkchop grabbed the glass back.
“Wait, wait,” Syl turned wobbly to Mayle, “The Risan simulation, I have a question,”
“Syl, just let it drop,” Mayle groaned.
“Non,” Syl said, “You helped us. Whether it was us against the Alphas, or you against the science team, I do not care. There is only one thing I need to comprehend,”
“And what’s that?”
“How did you find the holodeck command codes??” Syl demanded.
“Hey, yeah,” Paulson was dialing up another drink, “You can’t alter the simulations…they’ve got everything locked down. We tried!”
“You apparently didn’t try very hard,” Mayle chuckled, “The command code was ‘Password123’.”
They all stared at him for a moment.
“Who is running that ship???” Nacht wondered.
“Captain Harth,” Paulson said cheerfully, “A normal man, in a kingdom of freaks,”
“And in the kingdom of freaks…” Nacht spoke from beneath the table.
“The normal man is king,” Paulson finished, “Paraphrased a bit, but what can you do?”
“Hmm,” Mayle was thinking. Not about misquoting Erasmus, but about something Morreth had said earlier.
“Why wouldn’t Starfleet Intelligence want us taking leave on the Starbase?” he said, after a moment, “It doesn’t make sense,”
“Mais oui,” Syl disagreed, “We are…dangerous. And a bit crazy. I used to be afraid to shower with other people…now I am naked as much as not,”
“Don’t remind me,” Mayle muttered under his breath. Then, louder, “But we’re not that crazy, just a bit weird. And if Starfleet Intelligence wants to keep the Howlers a secret, then they want everybody to think the Farkas is an ordinary ship, just like any other. Which means they would want us doing all sorts of ordinary things…like taking leave, contacting loved ones and maybe even getting thrown in the brig for a good brawl. They wouldn’t want us all disappearing into thin air after being transferred to same ship due to ‘medical reasons’. It just screams conspiracy!”
“And?” Paulson was already down to the bottom third of her current drink, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“I…I don’t know,” Mayle shook his head, “I just have this idea that there’s something they’re not telling us,”
“No kidding,” Nacht grunted.
“I wonder how Morreth is getting on with the Bolian lady?” Syl wondered
“And then of course Bat, my third grandson by my son Sim, you remember, the one who divorced his wife after the hovercar incident? Well he married an Andorian who turned out be part of this spleen cult!”
“When will it end???” Morreth groaned softly.
Back in the Ring Review, Alpha team had left DoH Hom and had just been seated at Xphats, an Andorian restaurant. Calling it a steakhouse wasn’t quite accurate…on Andor, a steakhouse was simply called a restaurant and anything that wasn’t a steakhouse (or otherwise dedicated to meat) simply went out of business.
It was pure luck that Trimble was facing the entrance and had stood to his unusually tall height of 6’5’ just at the right moment. He ducked back down and hissed at Vanheath.
“Sir! We’ve got trouble!”
Vanheath looked towards the door, but couldn’t see past the waiters, customers and chest-level dividers that filled the space between their table and the entrance.
“Oh shit!” Crewman Johnson pointed, “Commander Belis! Talking to the host!”
“Bathroom! Everyone! NOW!” Vanheath snapped.
Moving as quickly as they could without running, the entire team rushed through a heavy iron and wood door and into the nearest washroom. As the five of them shuffled for space near the door, a single Andorian male finished washing his hands and gave them an odd look.
“He just saw his ex,” Packman explained, pointing at Vorns.
Giving them a sneer of contempt and muttering something about cowardly humans, the Andorian left.
Vanheath cracked the door open and pulled a small audio enhancer from his belt.
“You brought surveillance gear to dinner?” Packman asked.
“Did you not? Now shush.”
He fiddled with the device, then aimed it at the host stand.
“-certain you did not see these Starfleet security personnel this evening?” Belis was saying, holding up a small image, “Or perhaps half of them?”
“Who does and does not come to this establishment is none of your business,” the Andorian host was hissing.
“I am a Starfleet officer on a Starfleet station,” Belis replied coolly, “If you will not cooperate, I am certain a call up to Ops would speed things along,”
“As would a visit to the Mishtak pit,” the host shot back.
“Why are we hiding?” Vorns wondered, “We’re in disguise!”
“-been no Starfleeters this evening, other than the group that just came in. And they look nothing like these ones,” the host was saying, “Now either sit down and order something or be gone!”
Belis surveyed the restaurant. Was it his imagination, or did Vanheath see his gaze linger on their empty table for just a moment? Could he even see their table through the throng of beings and furniture? And why was there a nasty, serrated Klingon blade on their table!?
“Oops,” Johnson said, “my lucky steak knife!”
“Forget it, he’s leaving,” Packman gave a sigh of relief.
“Yeah, but that was way too close for comfort,” Vanheath pulled his comm-badge out of his pocket, “Vanheath to Travs,”
“What?” Travs voice was calm, but annoyed, “I’m just starting to relax down here,”
“Belis is looking for us,”
“Shit!” Travs’ voice was no longer calm, “Where are you?”
“Get back to the Farkas,” Travs ordered, “That’s the first place he’s going to look,”
“What about Beta? They’re down in the lower decks, probably disgracing themselves as we speak,”
“I’ll handle them,” Travs replied, “Just get back to the ship! Travs out!”
“You heard the lady,” Vanheath grunted, “Let’s get going,”
Travs was out of her spa shift and back in her civilian clothes before the masseur could wipe the oil off his hands. Quickly settling her account she darted out onto the third level of the Ring Review and managed to catch a glimpse of Commander Belis as he strode by, two levels below.
Thanking her diminutive stature, Travs was about to head to the nearest turbolift when an odd thought occurred to her: Belis hadn’t called the holodeck for a status update. The Howlers had hidden their tracks well…so far as any of the Farkas crew knew, they were still on training on the holodeck. But all he had to do was call her on her comm-badge and have the bridge track her transmission. He would know in seconds if they’d snuck off the ship.
So why didn’t he?
She watched him walk towards a restaurant called The View. The rest of the senior staff was just stepping out.
“Those bastards went out for dinner without inviting me!” Travs snapped, “Now it’s personal!”
They spoke for a moment, then the senior staff started moving towards the turbolift. Belis, on the other hand, resumed his walk down the promenade. What was he up to?
“Travs to Vanheath. Change of plans. Go get Beta. Pull Morreth free of his ‘date’ and get everybody back to the ship. I have to check up on something.”
“Vanheath to Nacht. Vanheath to Paulson. Vanheath to Mayle,”
“Urp. Mayle here,”
“It’s about time somebody answered!” Vanheath snapped, “Abort mission! The First Officer is on to us! Back to the ship!”
“But we’re not done our pub crawl!” Porkchop’s voice could be heard in the background, “We only on our…which pub are we on?”
“The first one,” Syl replied.
“Fail,” Packman shot Vanheath a knowing look.
Vanheath rolled his eyes.
“Shrug off the synthohol and let’s go!” he snapped.
“You guys are drinking real alcohol, aren’t you,” Vanheath sighed.
“We’ll be right there. Vanheath out.”
“Time to go pull their nuts out of the fire again, sir?” Vorns asked.
“As usual,” Vanheath grunted.
“Oh merde,” Syl cursed as the line closed, “They’re coming down to get us? Like mamma and poppa? We will never hear the end of this,”
“To the ship!” Nacht started hauling himself to his feet, “Without their help!”
He tumbled back to the floor, taking a potted rhododendron with him.
“We don’t need their help,” Syl said, “I’m sober!”
“Yeah, right,” Mayle muttered.
“Yeah, then touch your nose with one finger?”
“Because the last time I tried that, I poked myself in the eye,”
“Come on, everybody up,” Paulson said, rising to her feet and pulling Nacht up off the deck.
Slowly, they all managed to work their way out of the Beta Brewery and into the small, cramped concourse that made up the lower decks version of the Ring Review. There were only three other open businesses this far down the starbase and none of them looked particularly inviting.
They staggered their way into the turbolift.
“Deck 15,” Mayle said.
“Deck 25 has the docking bays!” Syl shouted.
“Are you nuts?”
“It’s Deck 20,” Nacht piped in
“Computer, we need a directory!” Paulson said.
“No we don’t, we’re not lost!” Nacht objected.
“Yes we are!”
The computer chimed and the lift started to move.
“Where are we going?”
Travs had managed to grab a hooded robe from a Terran missionary stand as she moved along behind Belis. With her face shrouded in shadow, she was able to follow much closer to her target.
Belis had just passed a turbolift when it opened, revealing Beta Team in all their drunken glory. Syl’s shirt had somehow disappeared, Nacht’s head was lolling like a bobble-head doll and Paulson was the only thing keeping Porkchop and Mayle on their feet. Her eyes widened as she saw Belis. He stopped, seeming to sniff at the air.
Thinking fast, Travs ran towards him and brushed against him just enough to knock him off balance. She sprinted away from the turbolift, calling out a quick apology in what she hoped sounded like a male voice.
“Yeah, I’m fine, thanks!” Belis called after her.
“Close it! Close it!” Paulson was hissing, jerking her head towards the turbolift door control. Her hands were too busy holding Porkchop and Mayle steady.
“I am,” Nacht said, pushing his thumb against a button.
“No, that’s the ‘door open’ button!”
“Is not! Look at the arrows!”
“They’re pointing out! Like the doors are out, and they need to come in!”
“What…NO! Push the ‘in’ arrows! Like you want the doors to come in!”
“Well that’s just stupid,”
Paulson let Mayle drop to the floor and slammed her hand on the right button. The doors hissed shut just as Commander Belis was turning their way.
“Too close,” Paulson muttered.
“Where the heck did they go?” Vanheath demanded, looking around the empty Beta Brewery.
“Ask the computer,” Packman shrugged.
“No, that would leave a trace,”
“Vanheath to…oh forget it, they’re too drunk to answer,” Vanheath ground his teeth in frustration, “Vanheath to Morreth,”
“I’ll be right there! Where are you?”
“Beta Brewery, but-“
In less than five minutes, Morreth came rushing down the corridor.
“Thank Khaless!” he exclaimed, “You saved me!”
“What, was the little old Bolian woman putting the moves on you?” Vanheath asked.
“No! She just kept going on, and on! About every relative she’s got, which sounds like half the galaxy! She was just about to tell me about her third-cousin’s fourth yeast infection!”
“Eww,” Trimble gulped
“Yeah, and hearing about the first three wasn’t great either! So what’s up?”
“Commander Belis was looking for us up in the Ring Review. We’re pulling back to the ship before the senior staff realizes we’ve gone off on them,”
“Oh,” Morreth looked disappointed, “I guess I won’t get to the comic book shop after all,”
“You’ll survive,” Vanheath shrugged, “So we beamed here…how are we getting back to the ship?”
“We’d have to sneak past the duty officer if we took the docking port,” Morreth said, “So Mayle has a program on his tricorder linked to a transporter recall sequence,” he looked around, “Where’s Mayle?”
Vanheath ground his teeth again.
Travs had flipper her hooded cloak inside out, changing the colour from creamy white to a sort of blueish grey. Handy feature, that. She was once again on Belis’ trail. He was heading for the docking bay, but from what she could tell he wasn’t going anywhere near the Farkas. Instead, he was heading to one of the bigger docking slips. Soon, the corridor opened into a sort of observational area, the sort of quiet place where Vulcans could meditate, Bajorans could pray and humans could try to seduce their dates. As they neared a row of double-high windows she could see a massive Galaxy-class ship moored with a series of umbilicals.
A single figure was standing in front of one window, facing out into the bay. Belis stepped up beside him, but didn’t face him or otherwise acknowledge him. There were a few other people in the lounge, but nobody payed them any mind.
Travs located a square cushion on the floor not far from the two and sat cross-legged, careful to keep her face concealed within her robe. Vanheath might have taken a real liking to the Starfleet Intelligence gear that was available aboard the Farkas, but Travs didn’t care for that sort of thing. She hadn’t been a security officer for over a decade without learning a few tricks, however. She pulled a standard padd out of her pocket and loaded a handy little audio pickup program she’d gotten from a Ferengi trader a few years back. Belis and the other man were speaking far too softly to be overheard, even in the quiet lounge. But the padd dutifully picked up their words and displayed them on the screen.
Voice 1: <-going as we thought it would. They’re beyond dangerous.>
That would be Commander Belis, Trav decided
Voice 2: <But you can’t argue with the results. The Tillet cartel’s lawyers kept the court system tied up in knots for five years. The Andorians sent three assassins after them! And now your Howlers have managed to succeed where everybody else failed.>
Belis: <I’m not arguing about the results, I’m arguing about the methods! Do you know how much damage the Howlers could do if they’re provoked? Every single person on the Farkas could be dead in less than an hour. Period.>
Voice 2: <Captain Harth’s superiors say that everything is perfectly under control.>
Belis: <Of course they would. By if I believed that, I wouldn’t be having this meeting with you, now would I?>
Voice 2: <And what do you expect me to do about it?>
Belis: <End this project! Get the Howlers off that ship and into a lab, where they belong!>
Voice 2: <And what about the Xenerosian Pirates? Orders for that mission are being put together as we speak. They’ve been trying to push their way out of the Kaxxis Sector for two years. It’s outside of official jurisdiction and until they actually move against a Federation member the council won’t authorize any action. The Howlers could end that problem before it goes any further.>
Belis: <And the cruelty goes on?>
Voice 2: <As long as the Howlers are an asset, my hands are tied. You’re our representation on that ship, do what you can to minimize the damage. But I can’t help you. Not yet.>
There must have been silence, as the padd stopped transcribing for several moments.
Belis: <I understand, sir.>
Voice 2: <Be careful. You’ve heard the same rumors I have. These people are dangerous.>
Belis: <Beyond dangerous, I know.>
Voice 2: <Good. Get back to your ship. I’ll expect to see you at Starbase 228 in two months.>
Belis: <Yes sir.>
Belis turned to leave. Travs appeared to be engrossed in her padd. The next time she looked up both Belis and the other figure gone.
It was time for her to do the same.
“Why haven’t we been beamed back to the ship yet?” Paulson asked Mayle.
“I’m having some trouble with the recall sequence,” Mayle complained, tapping only slightly drunkenly at his tricorder. They’d managed to find an out of the way corner near a docking bay cargo area to regroup. Nacht and Syl had coaxed coffee out of a nearby replicator and Paulson was halfway through a two liter bottle of water. Mayle had actually requested a hangover remedy, only to be firmly informed by the rest of the team that ‘those things never worked’.
“Trouble as in it’s not working, or trouble as in you’re still too drunk to hit the right button?” Nach asked, looking a bit more like himself.
“I’m fine,” Mayle said irritably, “But the tricorder doesn’t want to interface with the starbase computer network,”
“Wouldn’t’ that leave a trace anyway?”
“Maybe, but this tricorder is from a standard Farkas storage bin. It’s not tied to a particular individual,” Mayle repied.
He tapped again, then cursed.
“I need access to an ODN interface terminal,” he declared.
“The Starbase has plenty of those,” Syl shrugged.
“Yeah, and they’re almost all at duty stations or otherwise hard to get at,” Mayle complained. He was quiet for a moment. “Alpha Team would be a big help. I bet Ensign Packman could get this thing talking to any old comm panel.”
“We’re not calling Alpha for help!” Nacht snapped, “We don’t need them!”
“This again,” Mayle rolled his eyes.
“If you’re such a fan of Alpha, maybe you should be working for them!” Porkchop almost snarled.
Even Paulson and Syl were looking at him with open hostility.
Mayle clapped his hands together, causing everybody to start.
“What the hell is wrong with you people?” he demanded, “Alpha is on your…our side! They’re Howlers!”
“They’re not US,” Nacht said, “They think they’re better than us!”
“Big deal,” Mayle shrugged, “You always have those people. Remember Red Squad at the Academy?”
“I hated those guys,” Nacht agreed.
“We should eat them,” Porkchop added.
“Not what I meant,” Mayle groaned.
“Shit,” Morreth muttered, looking towards the gantry that led to the USS Farkas. Ensign Fraks was standing guard with two other non-Howler security officers.
“No way we’re getting in this way,” Vanheath agreed.
“Gentlemen,” Travs eased her way into their group, hood still covering her features.
“Here’s the plan,” Morreth said, “Ma’am, you’re a senior officer. You head out there, distract those security goons, then we sneak in.”
“Don’t be an idiot, and don’t call me ma’am,” Travs said, “If they see me off the ship, I’ll be lucky if I’m not shot on sight,”
Morreth looked like he’d been slapped.
“You’re a superior officer!” he said, “They can’t!”
“I just overheard a very interesting conversation between our favorite first officer and somebody who…well, somebody who seems to be high up in Starfleet Intelligence. Belis wants nothing more than to get us out of the way. I’m sure catching us like this would be a big step in that direction,”
“Where’s Beta?” Travs demanded.
“Well, we figured we’d beam them up once we were on-board the ship,” Vanheath replied.
“So you didn’t try to find them, or to get the recall program from Mayle’s tricorder?”
“We don’t need Beta!” Vanheath snapped.
Travs smacked him upside the head. Hard.
“We are the only Howlers in existence, and Starfleet can’t decide if they want us dead, dissected, or risking our lives to kill people they can’t!” she snarled softly, “We don’t have the luxury of this kind of…of…competitive pack mentality!”
“Yes ma’am,” Vanheath replied, looking abashed.
Very, very abashed, Travs realized.
“Where’s Beta?” she asked again.
“How can you possibly compare bringing porn to the workplace with our current situation?” Nacht was wondering.
“I didn’t!” Mayle objected, “Syl brought it up!”
“Oui,” Syl sighed, “I need a girlfriend.”
“Any luck?” Paulson asked tiredly.
“Well I thought I had a chance with Jasmine Bukan, but-“
“I meant Mayle. With the computer. Not your sad excuse for a love life,”
“No,” Mayle replied, tapping at a comm panel while Syl looked slightly offended, “It’s the data networks I need to get into…and I need enough access to get at external networks and into the Farkas.”
“We can’t just sit here,” Nacht declared. Apparently he was feeling well enough for his leadership side to show, “Let’s get to one of the Starbase transporter pads and beam to the Farkas from there!”
“Are you kidding? They’re guarded!”
“So we get Paulson to seduce the guard,” Nacht shrugged, “Syl, if it’s a girl. Or a gay guy,”
“Hey!” Syl objected.
“Please, you’ll sleep with anybody who compliments your six-pack.”
“I don’t have the six-pack,”
“Travs to Mayle,”
“Thank God,” Mayle tapped his comm-badge.
“Step away from the group. I need a word in private,” Travs said firmly.
Ten minutes later, Nacht and the rest of Beta were working out the specifics of his plan when Lt Cmdr Travs walked into their little corner. She marched directly at Nacht, drew back a fist and slugged him full across the face. He dropped like a stone.
“Alpha is meeting us two corridors over,” she snapped, “Mayle will bring the recall program, Packman will get us into the ODN system, then we will beam back to the Farkas. Anyone got a problem with that?”
Everybody shook their heads ‘no’.
“Good,” she nodded.
As they started moving, Mayle discreetly moved to Travs’ side.
“You were right,” he murmured.
“Show ain’t over yet,” she replied.
They were back on the Farkas less than ten minutes when Commander Belis walked into the Howler’s Den.
“How’s the training going,” he asked casually.
“I think Syl got one of the holograms pregnant,” Travs replied, trying to sound tired and annoyed. Not a very difficult task, that. “And Alpha Team managed to trigger the hotel self-destruct. Nevermind that the hotel doesn’t HAVE a self-destruct!”
“Hmm,” Belis eyed him carefully, “Well, in any event we’ve left the vicinity of the pulsar. You may all resume your…whatever it is you do when you’re not slaughtering the innocent,”
“Throwing puppies off a cliff?” Mayle quipped pleasantly.
“Dear Lord, who would do something like that???” Belis looked aghast.
“Nobody, I hope,” Mayl shrugged.
Shaking his head, Belis left.
“Mission accomplished.” Mayle said to Travs.
“Hmm,” Travs grunted, “Get the guys in the briefing room.”
“You know that Captain Harth and Commander Belis can overhear anything you say in that room,” Mayle warned her.
“Let them,” she replied.
“You’re not going to tip your hand about…what you heard?”
“Oh no,” Travs assured him, “But I think Harth and Belis still need to be reminded that we’re not just dumb animals. The rats in this maze have a word or two for the people running it.
Travs stood at the front of the briefing room, Nacht to her left and Vanheath to her right. Nacht’s left eye was good and swollen, and Vanheath kept shooting smug looks his way. The rest of the team watched nervously from the seats…with the exception of Mayle. Whatever was about to happen, it was something instinctual…something feral. And definitely something that was linked to the animal side of the Howlers.
“You two,” Travs snapped, “have, for whatever reason, decided that your teams belong to you. That you can do as you wish, without concerning yourself for the good of the larger team. Here’s a news flash for you,”
Her fist jumped out and clipped Vanheath neatly on the left eye. He gave a surprised squawk, then fell back against the wall. She turned to Nacht, but he was already crouched down, hands upraised.
Signaling his complete submission.
“We are ONE team,” Travs snapped, “ONE pack! Whichever way you want to look at it. There will be NO MORE of this ‘team-vs-team’ crap! You still answer to ME! Any problems?”
“Good,” she reached down and helped Vanheath off the floor, “I’m sorry I had to do that, Jacob,” she said to him, then turned to Nacht “And to you, as well. It’s not personal,”
“Ensign Mayle, you want to fill everybody in?” Travs asked.
Mayle took the stage.
“It’s animal behavior,” he explained, “We know that changing into your…wolf forms…whatever they are, on a regular basis is having an effect on your human behavior.”
“Anybody who’s seen Syl in the shower knows that,” Paulson said dryly.
“Right,” Mayle agreed, “But I, or rather Lt Cmdr Travs and I, think that what we have here is an experiment in pack mentality. When I first got here, the Howlers were a single pack, united under one alpha personality. But over the past few weeks, the Lt Cmdr and Lt Mooreth have been spending more time on the bridge, in staff meetings, or otherwise kept away from the Howlers. At the same time, Alpha and Beta teams have been running missions and training that pit one of you against the other.”
“I should have seen it sooner” Travs shook her head, “What happens when you take the alpha from the pack?”
Everybody slowly turned to look at Nacht and Vanheath.
“The stronger members of the pack start to fight for dominance, to see who will be the new alpha,” Vanheath said, looking embarrassed.
“Which is why I had to rearrange your faces,” Travs said, looking apologetic, “I had to speak to the Howler in each of us. I had to reassert my authority as leader of this pack, and doing it the Starfleet way with a nice little meeting and a note to your personal files just wasn’t going to cut it,”
She looked up at the ceiling, roughly where the security sensors would be.
“I’m certain this little episode was part of an experiment the science team came up with,” she said, “In fact, I’m sure they carefully documented our behavior during the whole thing. But this particular experiment is over,”
She took a deep breath, then smiled.
“You can bet,” she said, “That I won’t let things go this far again. And on that note, pups, let’s get out of here. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving,”
Still looking a bit uncomfortable, the Howlers started filling out.
“Not you,” she snagged Mayle by one arm, then waited until the room was empty.
“You realize this means you’re my point of reference on this,” she told him, “You’re the one person on this team that doesn’t react like a social predator,”
“It’s a good thing you got me and not my sister,” Mayle quipped.
“Look, just…keep an eye on the guys. And let me know if you see anything strange,”
Mayle gave her a look.
“I mean strange for the Howlers!”
“Deal,” Mayle chuckled. He sobered, “but there is something that’s still bothering me,”
“Tomillo. She let slip that we would be at the starbase. Then she covered it up”
“So, she NEVER talks to me about ship business!” Mayle said, “If the message hadn’t come in on her padd at that exact moment, I bet she never would have mentioned it!”
“So we got lucky,” she shrugged, tapping on her padd. She handed him the padd, then turned to leave.
“Now let’s go get some grub.” she said.
Mayle glanced at the padd.
<Worst case scenario: she just slipped.> the padd said. <Best case scenario: somebody on the senior staff wanted us to know. Which means we may have an ally.>
No, Mayl thought to himself.
Worst case scenario, it was part of yet another experiment.
Up in the conference room, the senior officers paused the surveillance feed.
“Any issues with your experiment ending early, Doctor?” Captain Harth asked.
“No,” Dr Wolfman said pleasantly, “I have more than enough data. I think we can safely say that a twelve-Howler pack will remain stable, provided the alpha is around. But I think if we added more than, say, two more pack members, then the pack would likely split.”
“And not without bloodshed, I imagine,” Commander Belis mused.
“Oh, probably,” Wolfman agreed, “I’m sure somebody’s throat would be torn out,”
“Now now,” Harth said pleasantly, “We don’t want them dead.”
“Yet,” Belis added.
“Oh come on, Martin,” Harth smiled, “Don’t be that way. By the way, you said you were checking for the Howlers when we left the restaurant…you seemed to think they might have been off the ship. Anything unusual?”
“No,” Belis replied, “I checked several locations around the station. Didn’t see any sign of them.”
“Good. Then we can safely say they stay put, right where I wanted them,” Harth rose to his feet.
“Dr. Wolfman, are you ready to proceed with the next experiment?”
“Sure, the next one’s a snap,” Wolfman said.
“Glad you’re prepared.”
“No, I mean it’s literally a snap. We’re testing bone strength and regenerative rate,”
“Sounds fun,” Harth nodded, “Dismissed.”
Next: The Howlers are sent on a mission to retrieve a research team from a primitive planet. Can they go undercover in public without revealing their secret? Not a chance…so they’ll have to get a bit more…creative.