Author: Brendan Chris
“Target is leaving the Romulas Republic” Crewman Johnson reported, “Bright pink dress, long blond hair,”
“I see her,” Ensign Nacht reported, “With the two bags?”
“No,” Johnson corrected, “the one with the short pink dress. Like, short-short.”
“Ohhh…you mean the slut with her underwear showing,”
“That’s the one,”
“Call a woman that again,” Ensign Paulson’s voice dripped with menace, “and you’ll be joining them,”
“Sorry, Seeta,” Nacht gulped.
Mayle sat at his usual station in the Howler’s Den, watching surveillance feeds from multiple monitors and working the Farkas’ sensor array to maintain a fix on each of the Howlers. Both teams were deployed to Starbase Waystation, with Alpha team sitting causally at a table in the food court while Beta team pretended to browse the deals at Nandagar’s Secret.
“How about this little number?” Paulson asked, holding up what was either a bunch of steak knives stuck together or a Breen bustier.
“I’m sure you’d look hot,” Syl said dutifully, “but the metal would pinch,”
“I meant for the target,”
“Could we focus, please?” Nacht asked, carefully picking up some sort of thong.
“Oh! Can I see that?” Syl snatched it from him, then held it over his clothing, “I would be looking very sexy in this, no?”
“Pack Second, this is Mailman,” Mayle said, holding back a chuckle, “We’ve got eyes on the target. Suggest we hurry, the guys are getting antsy”
“Confirmed,” Lt Morreth growled, “Prepare to…no, I wasn’t talking to you!
“Is that formal wear guy still giving you a hard time?” Mayle asked.
“Just because I’m not an over-muscled lug doesn’t mean I can’t look good in formal wear!”
“Well, you are pretty…uh…slim. For a Klingon. And it is a Klingon formal wear store.”
“And you’re pretty pale,” Lt Vanheath added helpfully, “Don’t forget pale!”
“That is what I told him!” a rough Klingon voice came over the comm.
“Morreth, use your earpiece for crying out loud!” Lt Comd Travs’ voice broke over the comm, “This is supposed to be a secret mission!”
“How exciting!” the other Klingon mocked.
“Um…I sort of…that is…” Morreth stuttered.
“You lost it. Didn’t you.”
“I’m going to Soup on a Stick,” Morreth snapped, “I can’t work like this!”
“Pack First, this is Mailman,” Mayle decided that despite procedure, maybe he shouldn’t be going through the second-in-command at the moment, “We’ve got eyes on the target and the guys are getting antsy,”
“Mailman, I really need a new call-sign. ‘Pack First’ sounds like I’m going on a trip.” Travs replied, “OK, Packman, how’s that surveillance hack coming?”
“Almost ready,” Ensign Packman replied. He was one of the more tech-savvy members of the team, and as such had been given the task of creating a hole in Waystation’s security scanner coverage.
“You said this would take five minutes! We’ve got the Starfleet Intelligence override codes and the how-to guide, and everything!”
“I know,” Packman replied, “But the guide says that every security chief with an ounce of sense has some sort of alarm that tells them when somebody tampers with their system…even if it’s SI. I can’t find this one! This Lt Comd Russel must be a really sneaky genius,”
“Or he didn’t bother to make an extra alarm,” Travs suggested.
“Mailman?” Travs prompted.
Mayle was in the Waystation personnel database in an instant, pulling up Russel’s file in two and ready with an answer in three.
“I don’t think there’s an alarm,” he said.
“OK then. Security system hacked.” Packman replied.
“Good,” Travs replied, “I’m in position in corridor 24-B. Alpha Team, go,”
Lt Vanheath, the only member of either team in uniform, pretended to tap on his padd, then approached the target’s bodyguard.
“Sir,” he said softly, “I’m Lt Jacobs, station security. I’m afraid we have an indication that there is a minor threat to your client. I suggest you take her back to her hotel suite until we’ve had a chance to evaluate the threat.”
“What sort of threat?” the bodyguard, a tall, bulky Vulcan asked calmly.
“The local Beiberites are mobilizing against her,” Vanheath replied, somehow keeping a straight face,”
“Understood,” the Vulan nodded politely, then turned to his client.
“Miss Cyrus,” I suggest we return to the suite immediately.
“Hmmph,” Miley snorted, looking down her nose at Vanheath, “Fine!”
“Target is en route,” Vanheath said softly as the two of them left.
“We really need to stop mixing 20th Century Celebrities with 24th-Century settings,” Mayle mused as he tracked Miley Cyrus on the surveillance feed, “It just doesn’t make any sense. Any why would the fan club of one celebrity be a threat to another? By the way, Commander Travs, she’ll be at the corridor crossing in thirty seconds,”
No answer came over the comm, but he could hear the crackling of bones and the rustling of mutating flesh. Travs was halfway into ‘costume’ already.
“According to the mission notes, ‘Beiberites’ are more of a cult than a fan base,” Vanheath supplied helpfully.
“Don’t wanna know,” Mayle said, “Commander, fifteen seconds,”
This time a soft grunt came back.
“Alpha Team, Beta Team, you guys may want to start making your exits,” Mayle advised.
“I just don’t understand why they hate me so much,” Miley was saying to her bodyguard, “I mean, just because I stole his thunder at the Grammy’s is no reason to-“
Just as the singer stepped into the corridor intersection a blur of dark fur flashed from her right. Something snapped out, striking the bodyguard in the temple and sending him to the floor like a ton of bricks. There was a flash of claws, a snap of teeth, then two separate, bloody pieces of singer dropped to the floor next to him.
By the time Travs re-entered the Starfleet Square Mall she was human again, fully dressed and sipping on a cup of Beanus original roast.
“Mission accomplished,” Mayle advised over the comm.
“Well done people,” Travs said, “Computer, save recordings and end program.”
There was a confirming beep then Waystation vanished, only to be replaced with the standard holodeck grid.
“Debriefing in thirty,” Travs advised, “Hit the showers, pups.”
“You still have some…” Syl pointed at her lip, “Right here,”
Rolling her eyes, Travs wiped the simulated blood off her lip.
“Close enough for government work,” she said.
Thirty minutes later, the Howlers were in their briefing room going over their training mission.
“Packman, I know it’s not your specialty, but you’re doing really well on the tech side of things,” Travs was saying, “I’m making that assignment permanent for you,”
“Just keep the ‘How-To’ books coming,” Packman said, not sounding especially pleased.
“We’ll see if there’s a learning annex course or something you can take,” Morreth offered helpfully.
“I’m happy with how this one went off, people,” Travs said, “Especially because it was done almost entirely without changing.”
“Yeah, I thought we were going to focus on missions involving primitive societies,” Vanheath spoke up, “You know, were we could all change without being noticed,”
“We are,” Travs nodded, “But we’ve got to stay flexible.”
“ATTEN-TION!” Morreth suddenly snapped.
Half the Howlers snapped to, the other half looked at the door to see First Officer Belis strolling on in.
“As you were,” he said, “Lt Comd Travs, we were just reviewing your training mission up on the bridge. Well done. Mostly.”
“You left one hell of a mess for Waystation Security to clean up,”
“Our people aren’t implicated,” Travs replied, “Both Alpha and Beta were on Waystation’s security grid the entire time. I was in the dead zone for less than a minute, and no human could have made it from my last recorded position to the attack scene and then to my exit point in that time,”
“Leading the investigating officer to conclude that you couldn’t have done it,” Belis lifted an eyebrow.
“So what exactly are they to conclude? That the target simply…fell apart?”
“No, that somebody else was there, and that that someone else did the murder,” Syl spoke up.
“More likely they’d suspect that you were a Changeling,” Belis said, “And they’d be giving us a nice little call asking for a blood screening,”
“So we give them one,” Travs shrugged.
“We give them a sample of Howler blood?”
“Well no, but we conduct the screening and say it’s fine,”
“And then they suspect the whole Farkas has been taken over,” Belis crossed his arms, “And then we’re getting far more attention than a top-secret ship wants,”
“I think that’s highly unlikely,” Travs said coldly.
“I don’t,” Belis said, “Run it again. And this time, try to find somebody to pin it on,”
He turned to leave.
“Carry on,” he waved a hand.
Trav looked around the room, then sighed.
“You heard him, pups,” she said, “Let’s run it again.”
“Three more hours down the toilet,” Syl grumbled, “I wanted to watch the hockey game,”
“And I wanted Commander Belis to give me a foot massage, but it’s not happening,” Travs replied.
“Who are we going pin things on this time?” Morreth asked.
“I have a thought,” Travs said darkly.
Three hours later Travs, Belis and Captain Harth were in the Captain’s Ready Room.
“I told you to keep the Farkas clear of suspicion in this little holo-program of yours!” Belis was snapping, “And instead you killed the target and slaughtered an entire Waystation security team!”
“And?” Travs asked calmly.
“AND YOU USED A HOLOGRAM OF ME TO FRAME ME FOR…FOR…MULTIPLE HOMOCIDE!” Belis shouted.
“Good thing it was all a simulation,” Travs smirked, “Seriously though, you wanted us to take out the target and point the blame somewhere else. We could have used a hologram of a random, generic alien to divert attention.”
“Exactly! The only reason to use ME is for spiteful malice! Which is entirely inappropriate!”
“And I suppose shooting me down and arguing with me in front of my entire squad is any better!?” Travs demanded, “You were way out of line!”
“So were you!”
“And now you’re both even,” Captain Harth said cheerfully from behind his desk, “And really, not much harm was done. Commander Travs, you will invite Cmdr Belis down to the Howlers Den for a meal or to do…whatever it is you people do in your off time. And Commander Belis, you will graciously accept. And the two of you will smile and be pleasant and show the Howlers that it was all just in good fun.”
Neither Travs nor Belis looked particularly happy about that.
“And do it quickly,” Harth added, “We have a mission coming up for you in two days. We’re en route to the Viatte system,”
“Two…days?” Travs asked, her issue with Belis suddenly on the back burner.
“Is there a problem?” Harth asked.
“Um…it’s just…it’s that time. Of the month,” Travs said.
Belis rolled his eyes.
“Not this again!”
“Commander Belis, give us a moment,” Harth said.
Belis left the room.
“Have a seat,” Harth invited.
Slowly, Travs sat.
“Alice, I know you’re having a rough time lately,” Harth said, “We’ve kept you busy up here, and the Howlers have kept you busy down below decks. Now, I know you all think it’s some sort of ‘experiment’,” he made little finger quotes, “but we weren’t trying to drive your team apart, or reduce the effectiveness of your leadership,”
“It’s been rough,” Travs admitted carefully, “But this is-“
“Different. I know.” Harth looked the very model of the concerned father figure, “And this monthly…issue…doesn’t help either. Have you considered asking Dr. Wolfman to give you something to stop-“
“I’m allergic to the medications,” Travs cut him off, “But I have other…means. If you’ll excuse me sir, I really need to start the prep work for this mission,”
“Of course. The details have been sent to your office,” Harth smiled again.
“Thank you,” Travs nodded as she left.
Harth watched he leave for a moment, then returned to work.
“What an interesting bunch,” he mused.
The next day, both teams were gathered in the briefing room when Travs and Morreth arrived. Morreth started tapping his padd, transferring mission details to the main screen. Travs though…Mayle squinted. Was she wearing a field suit? She was! A faint shimmer an inch or two off her skin revealed the force-field environmental suit. Terrible for working in space, but great for working in a poisonous atmosphere or quarantine zone.
“Why is she-“ Mayle started to say, but Porkchop cut him off.
“Let it drop, man,”
Frowning, Mayle sat back.
“OK, pups,” Travs said loudly, “We’ve got a mission. Tomorrow, the Farkas will enter orbit of Viatte II, a Prime Directive protected planet with Richter rating C-657-443-2. Use of electromagnetic radiation and transistors, but no subspace or transtator development,”
“Another 20th-Century Earth,” Packman muttered.
“Right,” Travs agreed, “Now, an undercover team was sent to the planet two weeks ago to conduct cultural research. They’ve missed their check-in and we’re the closest ship. So we’re sending a team down to locate them,”
“Explains the short notice,” Nacht said.
Travs went to adjust the controls, only to yank a hand back, cursing. She fiddled with a small control unit on her belt, then managed to work the panel without zapping herself. Mayle was about to ask her about it, but Paulson kicked him under the table and he shut up.
“Now, we have a possible reason for why they’ve gone missing,” Travs continued. A report appeared on the screen, “Their last transmission included information on a very unusual cultural practice among the Viattians: They regard animals as the ultimate moral compass.”
“That’s not so unusual,” Morreth spoke up, “Klingons consider animals to possess the purest fighting spirit,”
“This is a bit different,” Travs turned to him, the shimmer of her field suite glittering in the light. Mayle held his tongue yet again. “The Viattians believe that animals are also the ultimate moral judge. Anything you aren’t willing to do in the presence of a companion animal is considered amoral. As a result, Viattians bond with an animal…a ‘familiar’, at an early age. They’re always expected to be together. At work. At home. If your familiar and your date’s familiar don’t get along, it’s a sign your relationship is doomed already.”
“They don’t…sleep with them, do they?” Syl asked, an expression of distaste on his face.
“Sleep, yes. But they don’t…” Travs rolled her eyes, “Syl, get your mind out of the gutter.”
“Sorry. The gutter is sort of my second home.”
“Now, a person in public without a familiar is viewed with great suspicion,” Travs continued, “Which means the research team, who didn’t realize this until they’d already been on the planet for a few days, is probably in jail,”
“Sounds like a good job for us,” Vanheath said thoughtfully.
“Exactly,” Travs agreed, “We will send a team down consisting of myself and Ensign Mayle. I will be in Howler form, obviously, and Ensign Mayle will be the human half of our team,”
“Um, shouldn’t I be on the ship, monitoring?” Mayle asked.
Paulson kicked him again.
“What?” he asked her.
“Quiet,” Paulson muttered.
“Mr. Mayle, I know you’re still relatively new to the team, but in this case you have to trust that you are the best person for this mission,” Travs said coldly.
“It just seems a bit odd that our leader and our liaison officer are the two people being sent,” Mayle insisted.
“Mr. Mayle,” Travs put her hands on her hips, causing a show of sparks, “This is a very sensitive mission. My level of control over my animal form is unusually high for this team. I’m going. And you…um…you need to be the one that comes along. For reasons that…are none of your business!”
Mayle’s control broke.
“Why are you wearing a field suit?” he asked quickly, “Does it have to do with that? Why are you-“
“BECAUSE SOMETIMES I LIKE TO OVULATE!” Travs snapped.
Paulson, Porkchop and half the other Howlers did a face-palm.
“We warned you, buddy,” Syl groaned.
“But…but…” Mayle was confused. He looked at Paulson, “You-“
“I’m not the alpha,” Paulson sighed, “Travs is the alpha. And when the alpha has her…fertile time…the male Howlers get very…very…um…”
“They can’t breathe the same air as me without getting ideas,” Travs snapped, “Hormones, or pheromones, or some other shit that Wolfman finds just fascinating. The first time it happened it caught us completely by surprise. Now I either stay away from the team once a month, or I have to make sure they don’t get a whiff of…whatever,”
Mayle looked over the other men in the room. Most of them were looking at the floor, embarrassed.
“What happened the first time?” he asked.
“Shut up,” Travs said firmly, “Now, because your animal instincts seem to be much less intense than everybody else, you will be accompanying me down to the planet. We will locate the research team and assist or extract them as necessary. Ensign Packman will handle your usual job at the sensors. Everybody else will be on standby in case we need extra teams. Any MORE questions?”
There were none.
“One last thing,” Travs said, “An animal with a lack of morals, or ‘corrupt familiar’, as the Viattians call them, are extremely rare. But not unheard of. If you do end up on the planet, try not to do anything…stupid.”
“So Syl’s staying here,” Paulson whispered to Mayle.
“Hey,” Syl looked hurt.
“We beam down at 0830 tomorrow,” Travs said to Mayle, “The rest of you, be here at 0800. Dismissed.”
The USS Farkas glided into orbit of Viatte II. The small Intrepid-class ship was able to slip unnoticed past the half-dozen or so communications satellites the Viattians had managed to place in geostationary orbit around their planet. A single small moon orbited unusually close, signs of frequent lunar landings already evident. Taking up a decidedly non-standard orbit, the helmsman attempted to keep the ship off any primitive tracking systems the Viattians might be employing.
“Orbit achieved, sir,” Ensign Zaz Yurkar reported. Her purple skin was slick with a slightly slimy secretion her species used in lieu of sweat. (A towel had been placed on her seat.)
“I am picking up energy emissions consistent with radar,” Lt Soruk reported from Sciences, “I am adjusting our shields to absorb the energy without reflecting it. However it is highly likely that they are employing visual tracking systems of some kind,”
“Telescopes,” Cmdr Belis nodded, “The shorter we make this mission, the better,”
“Tactical assessment?” Captain Harth asked.
Lt Morreth stood in Lt Cmdr Travs’ usual place at Tactical. He was frantically tapping away at his panel.
“Lieutenant, the Captain asked you a question,” Belis snapped.
“Working on it, sir,” Morreth replied, “I haven’t looked at stuff this primitive in a while,”
“This is why we prep for-“ Belis started to rise, but Captain Harth cut him off
“It’s all right,” Harth said, “I wouldn’t know a nuclear missile silo from a microwave oven, myself,”
“Uh….OK,” Morreth finished his analysis, “Inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. They appear to be in a very low state of readiness. Plenty of anti-aircraft missile batteries, but nothing that could make it into orbit. Other than that, everything is as we’d expect,”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Captain Harth nodded, “Beam down the team,”
“You’re good to go,” Ensign Packman said, standing in Mayle’s usual place next to the transporter chief.
“Are you ready?” Mayle asked Travs.
“One moment,” Travs took off her field suit, closed her eyes, a look of concentration coming over her dark features.
Mayle turned away. The transformation from human to bestial, wolfish Howler was not a pleasant sight to witness, with flesh twisting and bones creaking. Packman however didn’t seem to mind. A strange look came over his face, then he turned to the transporter chief. He was looking at her a LOT more intently than he had been a moment ago. In fact, he seemed more that a bit…aroused?”
Packman noticed Mayle’s gaze and moved behind the transporter console, concealing his…anatomical response.
“Look, it’s the pheromones, OK?” he said, very embarrassed, “This is why we can’t be around her without the field suit right now,”
“Sorry,” Mayle said, “I didn’t mean to seem…judgmental.” He picked up Travs’ field suit emitter and set it on the transporter console, “I’ll be sure she gets this when we get back,”
“Pig,” the transporter chief muttered, shifting herself away from Packman.
Travs had finished her transformation and was staring expectantly at Mayle.
“Right,” Mayle said, “Let’s go.”
“Don’t forget this,” the transporter chief said, holding up a collar and leash.
“Look,” Mayle said, hands on hips, “I appreciate the sense of humour, but we’re all getting a bit sick of the constant ‘dog’ jokes, OK?”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” the transporter chief snapped right back, “You’re going undercover. As a Viattian and his familiar. His pet. And pets wear leashes and collars on this planet!”
Mayle’s eyes widened, then he flushed.
“Oh. Right,” he said sheepishly. He quickly snapped the collar round Trav’s neck, certain the whole time that she was grinning at him.
“Just…please energize,” Mayle said.
They disappeared in a shower of transporter sparks.
“Away team is…uh, away,” Morreth reported, a stutter in his voice.
“Thank you,” Cmdr Belis said curtly.
“Take a deep breath, Lieutenant,” Captain Harth said pleasantly, “I know you don’t work up here on the bridge often, but we’re a fairly relaxed bunch,”
“Um, yes sir,” Morreth said.
There was a beeping from Lt Soruk’s console.
“We may have to become somewhat less relaxed,” the Vulcan said in his usual monotone.
“Problem?” Belis asked.
“Sensors are detecting a Class-8 solar flare being emitted by the Viatte star,” Soruk said, tapping at his panel, “The heavier matter ejected from the corona will not reach the planet for another twenty point two hours. However there is an increase in electromagnetic radiation,”
“Oh, even I know the answer to this one,” Morreth laughed nasally, “Happens all the time. I’ll just increase power to the shields,”
“No,” Soruk replied before immediately, “deflecting the energetic particles with our shields will make us visible to planetary radar.”
“Oh,” Morreth was abashed, “Right. We can’t be detected,”
“We could drop into a lower orbit,” Cmdr Belis suggested, “The planetary magnetic field would give us more protection,”
“But we’d be easier to spot by optical telescopes,” Captain Harth shook his head, “And if we try to stay on the dark side of the planet long enough to outlast the flare, we’d have to take our orbit well beyond transporter range,”
“I suggest we leave orbit entirely,” Lt Soruk said, “In the unlikely event Lt Cmdr Travs and Ensign Mayle require assistance, we can return with a 68% chance of arriving prior to any serious injury or death on their part.”
“HEY!” Morreth objected, “You can’t just abandon them because of something as routine as a solar flare!”
Belis was about to chastise him when Captain Harth spoke up.
“So we find an uninhabited island, preferably tropical, and land the ship,” he said, “Lt Soruk, find us a landing zone. Ensign Yurkar, power down the warp core, secure our plasma emissions and bring the atmospheric thrusters online,”
Lt Soruk thought for a moment.
“That would be the ideal solution,” he agreed.
“So glad you approve,” Harth chuckled, “Ensign, take us down,”
As the Farkas was preparing for its descent, Travs and Mayle were stepping out of the empty ally they’d beamed into and onto a sparsely populated thoroughfare. A few Viattians were walking calmly along the route, but the early local time meant that things were still pretty slow.
Still, as the report had suggested, there wasn’t a single Viattian walking alone. Every single one of them was accompanied by a furry, four-legged companion. They weren’t exactly dogs, but they were relatively close. They seemed to almost resemble Earth Labrador breeds, however they were considerably larger, with narrower muzzles and longer limbs.
Travs was still considerably bigger, shaggier and more muscular than the rest of them. The Howler beast form wasn’t entirely canine, but it was pretty close. Still, as long as she didn’t rear up and walk or run on two legs (as Howlers could), she should be able to pass for a local.
The locals themselves were unremarkable humanoids. Their skin colouring was different (Dr Wolfman had given Mayle a hypo to change his colour enough to blend in), they lacked eyebrows or other facial hair (Dr Wolfman had given him a follicle suppressor) and males of the species had no external gonads to speak of. Mayle had thanked Dr. Wolfman for his offer of a temporary gender-reassignment, but had firmly declared that he would just keep his pants on for the duration of the mission.
“OK,” Travs said, “So…how should we start? I don’t suppose you can sniff them out?”
Travs looked back at him, but didn’t say anything.
“Right, you’ve never met them. How could you?” Mayle muttered to himself, “They should have sub-dermal transmitters, but we’ll have to be close to pick those up. And I’d have to pull out my tricorder, which I don’t want to do with Viattians around,”
Travs darted ahead, the leash nearly yanking Mayle’s arm out of its socket.
“Or I could follow you,” he gasped, running to keep up,”
“Landing trajectory plotted,” Ensign Yurkar reported.
“Bring us down,” Captain Harth ordered.
The Farkas fell towards the planet, its course best described as a belly-flop. The ship couldn’t glide across half the planet in a manoeuvre to shed velocity, nor could it come in fast enough for atmospheric friction to heat up the hull or shields. Either would result in detection. Instead, they’d taken up a geosynchronous position above their landing zone and allowed the ship to fall, using the atmospheric thrusters to keep their descent slow. The approach was inefficient and required a tonne of fuel (literally), but they weren’t exactly in short supply.
“Lt Morreth, anything on the planetary nets?” Harth asked.
Morreth was monitoring the computer as it combed through thousands of intercepted radio and television broadcasts, searching for key words like ‘alien’, ‘spacecraft’ or ‘meteor’.
“Nothing on the public nets,” he reported, “Military is…hmm, that’s strange,”
“Well, it’s some sort of encrypted traffic,” he reported, “
Lt Soruk raised an eyebrow.
“We broke their military encryption before we entered orbit,” he said, more than a hint of condescension in his tone, “The necessary keys are located-“
“I know where they are!” Morreth cut him off, “This isn’t…should they be able to do this?”
Lt Soruk tapped at his panel for a moment.
“Gentlemen?” Captain Harth asked.
“No,” Soruk said, one eyebrow arched, “This level of encryption is beyond the technology of the Viattians,”
“Abort landing,” Harth ordered, “Get us back into orbit,”
“I’ll have to fire up the impulse engines to do that,” Yurkar warned him.
“That’ll light up every EM sensor on this hemisphere,” Belis groaned.
Harth was cut off as the ship shook hard, knocking him to the deck.
“Energy beam from the surface!” Morreth cried, “They’ve taken out two of our atmospheric thrusters!”
“We’re off trajectory,” Yurkar called, “At this rate, we’re going to end up in the ocean!”
Down in the Howlers Den, Lt Vanheath and Ensign Nacht looked up at the ceiling as the ship shook, their cards and poker chips spilling across their table and onto the floor
“I wish they’d stop training new helmsmen every time we sat down to a game,” Nacht griped.
“I doubt they’re doing it on purpose,” Vanheath said.
“Oh yeahs?” Syl turned from his workstation, “You don’t think they sit up there, watching us, waiting until just the right moment to shake us like the frappé? Like another one of their silly experiments?”
“They…they wouldn’t be that petty, would they?” Paulson asked.
“Last week, they made me take a bath,” Porkchop spoke up.
“So? We all wish you’d take more baths,” Nacht shrugged.
“But every time I started to fall asleep, they dropped the water temperature five degrees! How much more petty can they get?”
They all looked suspiciously at the nearest security sensor.
“Twenty seconds until impact,” Yurkar called out. The island they were supposed to be landing on slipped past their view on the main screen, leaving a view of nothing but open water and a flattening horizon.
“All power to the structural integrity field,” Belis ordered.
“Ten…five, four, three, two, one,”
The bridge shook slightly as the ship splashed into the ocean.
Morreth, on the deck and wrapped around the Tactical station support pillar with his eyes squeezed shut, slowly opened one eye and looked around.
“That was…um,” he slowly climbed to his feet, “No damage?” Apparently?”
The rest of the bridge crew looked at him, annoyed.
“We only lost a couple of thrusters,” Belis said, “Enough to throw us off course. It’s not like they crippled the ship or something!”
“The question being,” Captain Harth rose to his feet, “Who are ‘they’, why did they shoot us down, and how did something like this happen on a planet that isn’t supposed to have anything more powerful than a chemical rocket?”
“Existing alien presence,” Lt Soruk began listing possibilities, “Proximity to Romulan space suggests they could have an outpost here. Previously unknown alien culture. The Viattians could be a post-warp society instead of a pre-warp society. Or they may simply keep their more advanced technology hidden,”
“And we’ll have no clue which it is unless we send more away teams, or do some fairly invasive sensor sweeps,” Belis cut him off, “Not to mention repairing the thrusters, which will take?”
“About three hours,” the Lieutenant at the Engineering station reported.
“So we’re stuck in the water for three hours,” Belis nodded.
“There is severe interference with the sensor systems,” Soruk said, “Source unknown,”
“So we can’t see what’s out there,” Harth said
“And…you know…the Viattians might come looking for us,” Morreth offered.
“Indeed,” Harth agreed, “Ready the Howlers. Alpha Team will investigate the source of that beam. Beta Team will assist with ship security,”
Inside, Morreth felt his heart leap. Yes! He’d hoped that his rare opportunity to serve on the bridge would show the Captain and the rest of the senior staff what he was capable of. This was the sort of thing that led to a good personal performance review at the end of the year. Which led to promotion, larger quarters, better missions…etc. But this…this was beyond his greatest hopes! Now, for perhaps the first time, the Farkas wasn’t just shuttling the Howlers around! This time, the Farkas NEEDED the Howlers to help get them out of a jam! And he would be the one on the bridge, bringing the news of their success to the senior staff!
With visions of rank pips in his head, Morreth tapped his comm-badge.
“Bridge to the Howlers Den,” he said, “We’re deploying! Alpha Team, form an away tam and prepare to beam to the nearest landmass to investigate the possibility of advanced technology. Beta Team, link up with ship security and be prepared to defend against a possible attack,”
“Whatever,” came the voice of Ensign Nacht.
“I…what?” Morreth’s eyes widened. Everybody on the bridge could hear what was being said.
“Now Ensign, don’t forget protocol” Lt Vanheath’s voice came over the comm, “It’s ‘whatever, sir’!”
“Oh, you’re right, Lt Vanheath,” Nacht said, “How could I forget?”
“You’re welcome, Ensign Nacht,” Vanheath repled, “See, Morreth, we’re onto the bridge’s little game. We don’t know just what this experiment is this time. Poking us with sticks,”
“Cutting us,” Paulson chimed in.
“Viral infections,” Porkchop spoke up.
“Pack dynamics,” Vanheath added.
“Sleep deprivation,” Trimble said.
“But either way, we’re not buying it,” the comm went dead.
Morreth stood, stunned on the bridge
“I told you this would happen sooner or later,” Belis said to Harth.
“Hmm,” Harth looked thoughtful, “Morreth, you are currently the senior Howler on board. Get down there and sort things out,”
“Yes sir,” Morreth started to leave, looked back at his station, then back at the turbolift.
“Now,” Belis said sharply, “We’ll call up a replacement for Tactical until you get back.”
“Yes, sir,” Morreth gulped. He jumped into the lift.
That promotion suddenly didn’t seem so close.
Travs had managed to pull Mayle down over three city blocks. Travs had been fully alert, her eyes open for any visual sign of the research team, her ears listening for the casual mention of ‘strangers’. So far, she hadn’t heard anything of interest. She was about ready to pull Mayle up to an attractive Viattian woman in the hopes that he would start up a conversation with her when there was a hard tug on her leash. She looked back, to see Mayle gesturing instead at a dark alley.
Travs sighed. Mayle still wanted to pull out the tricorder. She didn’t know what kind of security officer he’d been on his last ship, but his time running the sensors for the Howlers was making him a bit too dependent on technology for her tastes. This mission was about hunting for clues! Talking to people! Sniffing out the faintest hint of Starfleet’s missing people! If she wanted to stare at a sensor screen, they could have stayed on the ship.
She gave a grunt that she hoped sounded like ‘No’, then returned her attention to the target Viattian. The woman was walking along the street, her familiar following along. Her familiar, perhaps sensing Travs’ gaze, turned to stare back at her for a moment. Was that a frown on the animals face? Travs wasn’t sure…and she wasn’t familiar enough with the planet to know what kind of scents might mean what. And talk about scents! There seemed to be a sudden surge in smells, enough to give her a hint of a headache.
Mayle was pulling at her leash again.
Travs realized she was going to have to address this problem.
She allowed him to lead her to the alley. As soon as he was sure they were alone, he pulled his tricorder out of a pocket and started tapping.
“I’m definitely picking up human life-signs,” he said “And one Andorian…probably surgically altered,” They’re about five kilometers west of here.”
Travs ducked behind a dumpster and concentrated on her human form. Her flesh rippled and deflated, her teeth and claws retracted down to human size and, as her knees reversed from canine to biped, she rose to her feet.
“What do you-“
“YEEE-AHHH!!!!” Mayle jumped, started.
“Sorry,” Travs hoped nobody would walk in to investigate his shout. She was completely naked, as her usual spandex would look weird on an animal that was supposed to be a pet, “Look, we have to talk, and we have to do it ALL now! I can’t keep switching! You know nobody’s managed to change more than three times a day, and I can barely do it twice!”
“Why do we have to talk at all?” Mayle asked, holding up the tricorder, “I found them.”
Travs massaged her temples.
“When was the last time you were on a mission like this?” she demanded.
“Well, it’s been a while,” Mayle admitted, “Back on the Aerostar it was usually running around screaming while somebody shot at us, chased us, or tried to eat us,” he shuddered, “Or all of the above. Which is how I wound up here,”
“Your tricorder tells you roughly where they are but it won’t tell you how to get them!” Travs snapped, “You don’t know if they’re in a coffee shop, a police station, or a public stockade! Now listen carefully, because I’m not talking to you as your friend right now and I sure as hell am not talking to you as your pet! I’m talking to you as your commanding officer, and as somebody who wants you to get through this mission alive!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mayle mumbled, looking at the ground.
“And look me in the eye!”
“I can’t when you’re naked,” Mayle gulped, “And with that leash on…it’s like some kind of creepy bondage scene. I really, really hope nobody comes in here. And that nobody’s watching us on the ship’s sensors.”
Travs rolled her eyes.
“OK, point taken. But here are my instructions:” she reached from behind the dumpster and poked Mayle in the chest, “Talk. To. People! Be charming, be witty, be aggressive. Whatever it takes! It doesn’t matter what planet you’re on, people talk. And whatever information you need, somewhere nearby is an over-talkative idiot just waiting to give it to you. OK?”
“Yes, ma’am” Mayle folded up the tricorder and put it away.
“I hope so. Because I won’t be able to do this again,” Travs said.
This time, her transformation to beast was considerably slower, requiring deeper concentration. Changing from human to Howler was usually a matter of seconds, but this time Mayle was waiting for over a minute as Travs’ flesh shifted and rearranged itself. There was still no pain, but an uncomfortable pins-and-needles sensation ran over her limbs.
She looked back expectantly at Mayle as he bent to pick up the leash.
“OK, let’s try this again,” he said.
Morreth stepped into the Howlers Den in a state of near-panic.
“To the Transporter Room!’ he yelled in his whiny, nasal ‘command voice’, “To the Armoury! We have a mission to accomplish and a ship to defend!”
“We disabled the security scanner in here,” Ensign Packman said calmly, sitting at a work terminal, “It’ll only last a few minutes,”
“But long enough that you can drop the act,” Ensign Nacht added, “What’s really going on?”
“We’ve crashed in the ocean on Viatte,” Morreth exclaimed, “The Viattians have some secret technology…or there’re Romulans here, or something. So we need a team to go the island to investigate, disable that beam and erase any recordings of the ship. And another team to be ready to defend the ship if the Viattians find us before we can fix the ship and depart!”
“And let me guess,” Lt Vanheath said, “We have about three hours to do it?”
“How did you guess?”
“Because almost ALL of our training scenarios take three hours!” Vanheath shook his head, “And why would they send Howlers to look for alien technology? That sounds like more of a science team job, since Starfleet usually wants to TALK to the aliens instead of kill them. And defending the ship? Hello, we have ship security for a reason! And come on, you’re telling us we crashed, but we barely felt a thing down here!”
“Well, it was more of a rough landing instead of an actual crash,” Morreth admitted.
“Or the helmsman just juked the ship around a bit to make you THINK we crashed,” Nacht suggested, “We’re probably still in orbit of the planet,”
“If the planet’s even real,” Paulson said thoughtfully “Maybe Mayle and Commander Travs were just beamed to the holodeck?”
“Security sensors coming back up,” Packman warned.
“Fake scenario or not, you know what happens if the Captain decides we’re more trouble than we’re worth!” Morreth said quickly, “It’ll be off to the lab!”
The Howlers exchanged a look.
“Good point,” Vanheath admitted, “OK, Alpha is off to the island. But if we get sand in our fur, there’s going to be hell to pay!”
“And Beta will…I guess we’ll get our stuff and wait here until the pretend aliens come to imagine taking over the ship,” Nacht shrugged.
“Don’t say that.” Paulson chuckled, “It’s happened,”
“Don’t be ridiculous. How the heck could something like that possibly happen?”
“Sounds like the Howlers are getting ready to go” Belis advised Captain Harth.
“Good. Lt Morreth has managed to convince them we’re not making this up?” Harth replied.
“More or less,” Belis shrugged.
“OK,” Mayle said quietly, “I’ll go up to that woman and strike up a conversation. You play nice with her familiar while we talk, and I’ll casually mention strangers in town. So…uh, stomp your paw once for yes, and twice for no,”
Travs looked back at him. Wolf-beast or not, Mayle could read the expression on her face perfectly. It said: ‘Are you frickin’ kidding me? Just get the hell on with it!’
“Right then,” Mayle started to walk towards the woman. He was still five paces away when his comm-badge started vibrating.
“I better get this!” he said, moving quickly away from the woman and towards what appeared to be the local equivalent of a telephone booth.
Travs whined in frustration. What bad timing!
Mayle stepped out of the booth.
“That was Cmdr Belis. The Farkas was hit by some kind of energy beam and landed in the ocean,” Mayle said softly enough for her to hear, “We’re to continue on our mission and-“
His badge vibrated again.
Travs was a hairs breadth away from biting him and eating his comm-badge. How the hell were they supposed to accomplish the mission with all these interruptions!
“That was Morreth. Alpha Team is beaming to an island that they think is deserted, but that might be the source of the beam that hit the Farkas. He says everything is just fine, and that we should continue on with our mission,”
Travs was already pulling him towards their intended interrogation victim, who was at this point getting rather far away.
Mayle’s badge vibrated yet again. Travs growled at Mayle, baring her teeth.
He ducked into the booth again. In seconds, he was back out.
“That was Lt Vanheath,” Mayle explained, “He says-“
Travs barked. Not a bark like a regular dog, but a throaty, deep, powerful WOOF that told Mayle in no uncertain terms that he was to shut the hell up and carry on.
“He said the Holwers think this whole thing is secretly a holodeck training scenario, but that we should continue on our mission anyway,” Mayle finished, his voice almost a squeak.
Travs really wished she had hands. A face-palm was really called for right now.
And what was that SMELL???
Alpha materialized on the island, their uniforms crisp, their hair well groomed and their tricorders held in outstretched hands, ready to begin their investigation.
It was a nice fantasy, anyway.
They actually materialized in a raging tropical storm, with rain pounding down, thunder crashing and lightning lighting up the sky. Vorns immediately let out a howl-like scream, throwing his head up at the sky. Trimble and Johnson ran for cover while Vanheath struck the ‘commander leader pose’, his shoulders back, spine erect, head tilted slightly back and arms ready.
He realized after a moment that his team wasn’t adding to the image he was trying to project, shook his head, then joined Trimble and Johnson under a nearby tree.
“Maybe the Farkas was just struck by lightning?” Trimble asked, shouting to be heard over the raging storm.
“Maybe,” Vanheath shrugged, “But I doubt it”
“I can’t see a thing in this storm,” Johnson complained.
“Go ahead and change,” Vanheath said, “I’ll do the tricorder scans,”
Johnson, Vorns and Trimble quickly changed into wolf form. Their uniforms were ripped to shreds (further destroying Vanheath’s fantasy), leaving them in their coloured spandex doggie-shorts. Vorns let out another howl as the transformation finished, rivaling the storm itself.
The three Howlers vanished into the nearby tree line, the rain suddenly forgotten. Vanheath, though still human, felt a surge of animal desire flood though his body. He wanted to be with the pack, hunting down whatever prey had dared to try to strike them down! His blood sang with fury, his hands tingled with the imagined feeling of the hard packed ground.
Whoops, no. That was fur. He was starting to change!
Forcing himself to focus on the task at hand (and his humanity), he pulled out his tricorder. The Farkas’ sensors might have been having issues, but his tricorder showed big energy emissions barely a kilometer away.
Time to investigate.
“Good day, miss. How….uh,” Mayle panicked, trying to figure out what to say, “I like your dog?”
It seemed to be the right thing to say, as the Viattian woman smiled at him and asked how Travs had grown to be so big.
As they chattered on, Travs turned her attention to the Viattian’s familiar. The dog-like animal appeared to be female. She was smaller than Travs, though still large by Terran standards. Her coat was a light beige, and Travs could detect a slight scent of shampoo. Clearly the animal was well pampered by its owner.
The familiar looked back at her, then sat back on its haunches. A strange smell passed over Travs’ nose…did the damned thing have gas?
“No,” the Viattian was saying, “I remember something in the news about some strays being found without their familiars, but I don’t actually know anything about it,”
“No harm in asking,” Mayle replied.
“I should introduce you to my friend, Mas,” she went on, “He has a few friends over at the news service. His familiar is a charming thing, I’m sure yours will get along wonderfully with her,”
The beige animal had cocked its head and was now staring at Travs curiously. Her tongue lolled out as she panted, then half barked, half whined for a couple of moments.
Not sure what to do, Travs imitated the creature, trying to ignore a new barrage of stinks. The Howlers had found out early on that trying to speak English through a canine mouth resulted in a strange warbling, much like dogs trying to imitate their masters.
“Yeah, great time we’re having here,” Travs attempted to say. (It sounded more like rawwrararrrrarawwraw-raww.)
“Oh, they’re talking to each other! Isn’t that cute,” Mayle forced a laugh.
The woman looked at him strangely.
“Familiars don’t talk like that,” she said.
“But they…just now…” Mayle shook his head, “Never mind. Where did you say I could find your friend?”
The woman gave him an address. The instant she finished, the beige familiar jumped to her feet and ran towards a nearby building, pulling her owner along with her,”
“Oh, somebody’s got to go to the little puppies room,” the Viattian laughed, “Have a good day!”
Mayle waved good-bye and turned to leave. As he did, Travs saw the Viattian take her familiar off her leash. The animal slipped into a doggie-door, the sign above which flashed to display the Viattian word for ‘occupied’.
Spoiled animals, Travs thought.
“So…they take their animal for walks, then wait outside while they go inside to piddle?” Mayle muttered, echoing her thoughts.
“Woof,” Travs agreed.
“Well, don’t get any ideas. This is the only time I’m ever taking you for walkies.”
Morreth was back on the bridge, watching as the bridge crew coordinated repairs to the Farkas. On his panel, one screen was switching between the sensor feeds that Packman had running into his workstation in the Howler’s Den. The rest of his displays all concerned ship security. It was no wonder Travs always seemed to distracted when she was on the bridge! He’d forgotten that playing den mother to the Howlers wasn’t her only job.
The slow shifting of the deck wasn’t helping either. There was a good chance he was getting seasick.
“I have determined that it is the high levels of magnesium in the sea-water that is disrupting our sensors,” Lt Soruk said, “As long as the primary sensor arrays are submerged, sensors are degraded. Transporter emitters on the dorsal hull remain functional,”
“Lt Morreth, do you have more details on the beam that hit us?” Captain Harth asked.
This was an answer he was ready for!
“The beam was actually comprised of three individual beams,” Morreth replied promptly, wiping sweat out of his brow ridge, “A high-powered sustained microwave beam, a gigawatt pulse laser with approximately a 50% duty-cycle and a burst of focused gamma-radiation. Though based on the duration of the gamma-burst, I believe it was an experimental system that failed shortly after activation. The combined effects were not enough to damage the hull, however they did interfere with the antigravity pads in the atmospheric thruster system, enough to throw us off course and drop us into a dive,”
Harth and Belis looked back at him. Lt Soruk raised an eyebrow.
“Are you sure you’re supposed to be working in Tactical?” Belis asked.
“A shorter answer next time would be appreciated,” Belis added, dryly.
“Big hot beam hurt ship,” Morreth replied snidely, “Knock ship down.”
“Don’t be insubordinate,”
Morreth was about to reply when his comm beeped. It was Packman.
“I still can’t get anything other than comm feeds,” Packman said, “Vanheath is tracking energy emissions. The other three are running around the jungle. I think Vorns ate an alien monkey. He might need his stomach pumped if it turns out to be poisonous,”
“Keep them under control,” Morreth hissed quietly, “Don’t you know how important this is?”
“I’m sure its very important to you and your new friends up on the bridge,” Vanheath’s voice came over the comm, “But a possibly-simulated twentieth century planet isn’t really a big threat,”
“Big enough to shoot us down!”
“If they did,”
“I…ghuy’cha’!” Morreth cursed.
Vanheath had followed his tricorder for nearly a kilometer when he came across an open field. A few hundred meters away hulked a large stone bunker with a heavy metal door. Directly behind the bunker was a broad, flat hatch built into the ground, rainwater running off through a series of drains along the edge. Vanheath had no idea what it was, but it was big enough to conceal even a primitive beam emitter.
“Vanheath to Farkas, I found the source of the beam. No idea what it is yet. I’m going to try to break into the…facility, or whatever it is.
He spotted several surveillance cameras, easily put out of order with one of the Starfleet Intelligence gadgets on his belt. He crept carefully across the empty field. There were life-signs on his tricorder, but all but two were reading as asleep. Those two were probably watching the cameras. He eased his way up to a primitive computer panel mounted next to the door. As he did, an odd scent crossed his nose.
“Vorns?” he called softly, toggling his earpiece, “Were you marking your territory over here?”
A negative-sounding grunt came back over the channel.
“Hmm,” he sniffed again.
“Can you stop smelling things and just open the door?” Packman’s voice came on, “Uh…sir?”
Coughing, Vanheath pulled out a cryptographic analyzer from his belt. No sooner had he slapped it into place than a siren started blaring, teal lights started flashing and the sounds of shouting humanoids and barking dogs filled the air.
“I think I tripped an alarm!” Vanheath cried, “I need some HELP OVER HERE!”
He bolted, running back towards the treeline. The door behind him ground open and the sound of shouting became even louder. Vanheath risked a glance back. Dogs! And machine guns! Over a dozen soldiers were pouring out of the base, weapons in hand. Straining at their leashes were half a dozen huge canine animals, their jaws set in grim determination.
Familiars! Only bigger and far tougher-looking than the images of the city animals he’d seen before!
“HURRY!” he gasped, resuming his sprint. He reached for his phaser, finding nothing Prime Directive! He couldn’t let them see advanced technology! They’d all left their phasers on the ship!
“If you could just get out of sight we could beam you up!” Packman’s voice spoke in his ear.
Vanheath had reached the treeline. He dove behind a fallen log, out of sight of the soldiers.
“NOW!” he called.
“Trying to get a lock…”
Vanheath’s nose prickled before he felt the warm breeze of breath on the back of his neck. He slowly turned, finding himself face to face with once of the big dogs.
“Nice puppy,” he gulped. Oh, the irony of being mauled to death by a wolf. He slowly eased his hand towards his non-existent phaser, but the animal growled.
And the soldiers were getting closer.
“I can’t get a lock,” Packman sounded worried, “Give me a minute!”
“I don’t have minute!”
Back in the calm of the city, Mayle and Travs had reached the address of Mas. It appeared to be a shop of some kind, selling light green bottles of liquid. Intoxicants, maybe?
A slight-looking Viattian was standing behind a counter. Curled up in one corner was a small, female familiar. The female was slender and petite, more so than most of the animals they’d seen so far.
“Oh my!” exclaimed the man (Mas?) as they walked in, “Isn’t she a beast!”
“Uh, she’s not that bad once you get to know her,” Mayle replied.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Mas made kissing noises with his lips. His familiar jumped up, eyes Travs with suspicion, then interest.
“Now” Mas said, giving Mayle a once over, “What can a humble proprietor like myself do for a handsome young thing like you?”
“Uh, I’m looking for a group of…friends,” Mayle replied, “They came to town a couple weeks ago, then we stopped hearing from them,”
“Oh!” Mas looked around, then lowered his voice, “You don’t mean those strays from the park, do you?”
“Maybe?” Mayle was confused.
As they spoke, Travs and the other animal eyed each other. The other animal was sniffing at her, though as she did so a wave of odors washed over Travs. It was almost enough to make her eyes water. Like the last one, this familiar settled back onto her haunches and looked back at Travs expectantly.
Again at a loss, Travs stared back. She tried ‘talking’ again, but the animal just cocked its head.
<God, are these things ever stupid,> Travs thought to herself.
“OK, well thanks for your help, let’s go!” Mayle was saying quickly. He tugged on Travs’ collar and almost bolted towards the exit.
Relieved, Travs turned to follow him. As he rushed out of the shop, she looked back at the stupid dog. The thing was slipping through a doggie-door at the back of the shop. Was it her imagination, or did it give her one last glance as it disappeared?
Her attention was shifted back to Mayle as he started half walking, half jogging in a new direction.
“We were right,” he told her, “They were arrested. Big surprise. They’re at the police station. The problem is that we can’t get them out without their familiars. And that shopkeeper kept hitting on me!”
Travs grunted. She didn’t really care.
“I mean, did I do something to make him think I was interested? Because I’m not! This is like the Academy all over again! Did you know that some guy sent me flowers once? Most awkward thing ever!”
“Um, right. So…there are five of them. If we get Beta team and Morreth over here then we can just walk right in with five extra animals and walk right out with five happy owner/familiar pairs. Too easy!”
Travs wished he hadn’t said that.
“They’re outnumbered!” Packman cried up from the Transporter Room, “We need to beam them out! Now!”
“Negative,” Belis replied immediately, “We can’t fly the ship out until that beam is disabled.”
“I tend to agree,” Harth said, looking unhappy. Possibly for the first time in Morreth’s recollection.
“Send Beta!” Morreth spoke up, “And…and…wasn’t Engineering trying to figure out some sort of Howler body armour? For dealing with swords? After that Andorian mission?”
“Armour is easy,” Lt Comd Xi’Strix said from the Engineering panel, “It’s keeping it hidden that’s the problem. The Howlers are supposed to pass as animals, after all,”
“I think, given the current situation, we can handle the Viattians seeing wolves with bullet-proof vests,” Harth said dryly.
“Deploying Beta!” Morreth said gleefully.
“OK, dog,” Vanheath said, gritting his teeth, “You want to play? Let’s play.”
What he was doing was risky. If the animal wasn’t caught off guard, he’d be dead in about two seconds. But the soldiers had almost caught up to them, and he was out of options.
He squeezed his eyes shut and changed. The attack animal looked on in confusion for a moment as the biped in front of it began shifting, its flesh altering. Then it caught the smell of Howler, turned and bolted.
Vanheath opened his eyes. If his animal instincts had been crying out before, now they were positively screaming! The other animal had run off, but two soldiers were running towards his hiding place! He jumped up, his yellow eyes gleaming as a flash of lighting illuminated him, the pounding rain sliding off his thick coat.
The soldiers didn’t realize for a moment that he wasn’t their dog, but within a second were raising their weapons. His conscious mind was buried under a wave of predatory impulses that did not, unfortunately, include fear of guns. He coiled himself to strike, just as the guards squeezed their triggers
There was a flash of fur, then Vanheath was knocked to the side by a heavy, furred weight. His nose immediately identified Vorns. Ten meters away, Johnson had knocked the two soldiers to the ground. Their weapons had fallen to the ground, and even as one guard reached for his, Johnson’s throaty growl convinced him to leave it be.
Trimble was wrestling in the mud with two smaller guard animals, teeth snapping and claws scrabbling for purchase. Vanheath was about to run to aide his pack-mate when another Howler, this one clad in some sort of dark padding, joined the fight. Between the two of them, they sent the guard animal running.
Gunshots rang out, knocking the new Howler (Syl) to the ground. He lay stunned for a moment, then shakily regained his footing. The bullet had hit armour instead of fur, Vanheath realized. The Farkas had sent reinforcements! Bulletproof reinforcement!
This was going to be too easy!
“What do you MEAN you can’t beam down Beta Team???” Mayle was speaking angrily into his communicator, “Look, do you realize how easily we can get the research team out right now?”
“Well, getting the ship back into orbit is more important,” Morreth replied, “It’s not like the research team is going anywhere. So just grab a latte and make yourself comfortable for an hour or so. Then you can have your Howler team,”
“You’re getting as bad as the rest of the bridge crew,” Mayle replied.
“YOU TAKE THAT BACK!”
Sighing, he stepped out of the ally he had hidden in and led Travs to a nearby park. They were less than a block away from the police station where the research team was being held. He settled down on a bench, eying the nearby building.
“We should just go in there ourselves and get them,” he declared, rising to his feet. He started walked, but the leash pulled tight. Travs wasn’t moving. And with her size, that meant he wasn’t moving either.
“You’re right” he muttered. He returned to the bench. “Ugh, this is frustrating! My first ground mission in ages and the comm keeps going off, I’ve stepped in dog poo at least twice and now I’ve got alien guys hitting on me.”
Travs gave a whine she hoped sounded sympathetic.
“I guess it helps that he’s really more gender-neutral than male,” Mayle grunted.
“Of course he is, we had him neutered. Just like all the rest,”
Mayle jumped to his feet, reaching for a phaser that wasn’t there. Travs was on her feet, heckles up, teeth bared.
“Calm down both of you. You’re thoroughly outnumbered. And I’m not showing myself until you sit and stay!”
Travs and Mayle exchanged a look, then sat.
A chocolate-brown familiar emerged from behind the stone fence bordering the park. A small, gleaming device had been attached to its collar. As the voice spoke, the device flashed in time with the words.
“He was hitting on you because you walked into his shop with a female familiar the size of your average house,” the animal explained, “Most bipeds are paired with familiars that share their taste in mates. That you, a male, were paired with a dominant, fertile, female familiar indicates you prefer to take a dominant, female role with your mates.”
“I most certainly do not!” Mayle objected.
“Then you should have paired with a male familiar. Then you might have mated successfully with that young female you were courting earlier,” the animal cocked its head, “While you had the chance. If you plan on staying, we’ll have to have you fixed. Bipeds just breed out of control anyway,”
“I am Grrrwof,” Grrrwof said, “I am an ambassador. Though usually I speak to ambassadors from other nations on our world, I do have to deal with the occasional off-worlder,”
He turned to Travs.
“I apologize for speaking solely to this biped, my lady,” he said, drooping his tail in what might have been an indication of submission, “However, we are quite unable to translate to or from whatever language you speak. We have been trying since you materialized. Our own communications are a combination of verbalization, scents and body language. Each of which is incomprehensible without the other two.”
At least that explains all the horrible stinks she’d been dealing with, Travs realized. These guys would NOT be popular at the Federation Council.
“Um…she understands my language fine,” Mayle offered.
“As we surmised, watching you,” Grrrwof sat in front of Mayle and began grooming himself.
“We have had alien visitors before,” he said between licks, “Only they had pointed ears and odd shapes on their foreheads. We neutered a few of them before we realized they were more intelligent than our own pets, more advanced than us even. They stopped coming after that,”
“I don’t blame them,” Mayle crossed his legs.
“In any event, when we found your research team, we of course realized they were alien, and that somebody would be looking for them. We are a peaceful people,”
Other than a fondness for castration, Travs shuddered.
“I hope they’re still…intact,” Mayle gulped.
“Of course. We’re not animals. We didn’t know if you intended to breed them or not, and for all we know they might have been pure-bred!”
“You better not be about to make some sort of species joke,” Grrrwof growled.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,”
“Good. Now, you may have your people back. And you and your ship may leave,” Grrrwof said, “That is, on one condition.”
Vanheath, Trimble and Vorns were on a rampage.
The biped soldiers had run in fear, hiding up on the bunker roof or behind whatever ground cover they could find, firing only the occasional shot. Between the rain, the dark, the occasional lightning flash and the body armour worn by Beta team, their firearms weren’t particularly effective. Their attack dogs were still in the fight, and a good fight they were putting up indeed. The Howlers were big, the Howlers were strong, but the Viattian familiars were FAST! No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t dig his jaws into their throats!
Somebody was talking in his earpiece, but he was in combat! He couldn’t pay attention to some errant voice! If he had been paying attention, he might have noticed another very strange smell.
The familiar he was grappling with disappeared. He spun around, spotting the animal as it ran back to the bunker. He was about to give chase when there was a shower of transporter sparks. Mayle and Travs materialized directly in the middle of the battle zone, along with a Viattian familiar.
“STOP!” Mayle was showing, waving his hands, “Holy shit, it’s wet,” he muttered, “STOP! HOWLERS, STAND DOWN!”
Vanheath charged at the newcomer, only to be knocked to the ground by Travs.
THE SCENT! It was overwhelming! Intoxicating!
Mayle had only paid attention long enough to ensure he wasn’t about the die. He spotted Nacht and Paulson slinking cautiously in his direction and turned away from Travs and Vanheath as they struggled.
“Um, so it turns out that the Viattians aren’t exactly a 20th-Century society,” he called out, “They’re closer to 22nd, but their technology is mostly hidden. Look, it’s complicated. But they’ve already had encounters with the Romulans, which is why they tried to shoot down the Farkas. They were watching Travs and I since we got here, and they’ve realized we’re not a danger to them.”
“Maybe not dangerous,” Grrrwof said, “But you are sort of perverted,”
Grrrwof nodded his canine head behind Mayle. Mayle turned, only to see Travs and Vanheath. They were…well, at least now he knew why the Howlers were so careful about staying away from Travs during her…time.
“Mayle to Farkas,” he said, as calmly as he could, “Beam Lt Comd Travs and Lt Vanheath back immediately. And…uh…”
“Did Vanheath get a whiff of Travs?” Packman asked.
“Nuff said. There’s really nothing we can do except wait until they finish,” Packman said, “You get in his way and Vanheath is liable to bite your arm off.”
“Great, but they’re in the public, and I’m trying to negotiate with an alien race at the moment,” Mayle complained.
Travs and Vanheath vanished in a shower of transporter sparkles.
“I really can’t blame him,” Grrwof admitted, “She’s quite a woman. I’d mate with her, if I didn’t think she’d kill me,”
He started running around on all fours.
“OK, bips!” he shouted, using the Viattian term for bipeds, “Back to bed! Come on! You did good! Good boys! Now go to bed!”
One of the Viattians was running by. He stopped and timidly approached Grrwof.
“Do we get…treats?” he asked.
“Maybe!” Grrwof barked, “Maybe your master has one waiting for you by your bed!”
“Oh boy!” the Viattian said happily, running towards the building.
“Raaw, is that one yours?” Grrwof asked, “you better give him something!”
“He’s had five treats already today!” one of the other familiars complained, “He’s going to get fat!”
The Howlers exchanged looks.
“They are adorable, aren’t they?” Grrwof said to Nacht. Nacht, not sure what to do, gave a sort of ‘yip’ sound.
“Quiet sorts,” Grrwof said of the Howlers before turning to Mayle, “Well, that takes care of that. You have your people, your ship may leave, and nobody died.”
“We’ll be on our way,” Mayle said diplomatically, “But I imagine the Federation would be interested in sending an ambassador. Romulan space is nearby, and they’re sort of our allies at the moment. We might be able to work out some sort of protected planet status,”
“Sure, why not,” Grrwof agreed, “But hopefully we can get a translation program figured out for your masters first. No offense, but talking to a biped about something other than treats and walkies is just…weird.”
“I understand,” Mayle said dryly.
Two hours later the Farkas was warping away from Viatte II. Pieces of seaweed still clung to her hull, but as they were desiccated by the vacuum of space they fell off, disintegrating when they left the warp bubble. The Howlers were gathered in the Den for their post-mission analysis.
“And that,” Travs was saying, “was officially the most messed-up first contact I have ever been on,”
“I was on a mission once where the real intelligent species on the planet turned out to be squirrels,” Nacht offered. Vanheath was sitting next to him staring at down at his table.
“On the bright side we accomplished our mission,” Travs said, “The research team was recovered, along with a report outlining their suspicions that the familiars were the real intelligent life on Viatte II. They were going to transmit it the day after they were captured,”
“Great timing,” Paulson groaned.
“I know, right?” Travs agreed, “How were we supposed to know that most of the technology the Viattian bipeds have was given to them by their familiars?”
“The ultimate pet toy,” Mayle mused, “Here, go play with this civilization while I read my paper,”
“Of course, Starfleet is going to have to tread carefully,” Travs continued, “The Viattian familiars might wonder why there aren’t any member races that resemble the Howlers when they start dealing with the Federation”
“Good thing they didn’t see anybody change,” Mayle commented.
Vanheath cleared his throat.
“What’s that, Lieutenant?” Travs asked stiffly.
“One of them might have seen me change,” he said quietly.
“It was dark and there was plenty of lightning,” Paulson said, “I’m sure we could just say he didn’t see you clearly. It’s only one person, right?”
“As opposed to the two dozen that saw you mounting-“ Syl started to say. Travs slammed her hand down in front of him.
“Not. Another. Word.” she said, her eyes promising a gruesome death.
“Je ne le parle plus,” Syl gulped.
“Lt Vanheath and I were victims of the same animal instincts the rest of you are constantly struggling with,” Travs said sharply, “It happened. In public. I get it. But we will NEVER speak of it again,”
“Is that clear?” Morreth snapped, his voice nasal.
“CLEAR, MA’AM,” the Howlers replied.
“Good,” Travs nodded.
“Are we sure this whole thing wasn’t a holodeck mission? Nacht asked.
“Did anybody bother saying ‘Computer, end program’?” Travs asked.
“Then no. But I don’t care.” She turned to Morreth, “Commander Belis would like to see you at your earliest convenience. The rest of you are dismissed. Oh, and Lt Mayle, Counselor Tomillo wants to see you. It seems somebody,” she shot a look at Vorns, “urinated in the arboretum. Again.”
“Liaison work is never done,” Mayle sighed, climbing to his feet.
After the Howlers filed out, Travs and Vanheath were left alone in the briefing room.
“We’re not speaking of it,” Travs cut him off, “Ever. It never happened. Don’t beat yourself up over it. But don’t get any ideas in your head.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Vanheath mumbled, moving towards the door.
“Nothing’s changed,” Travs said as he left, trying to sound friendly.
Vanheath gave her half a smile, then left.
“You did well on the bridge,” Captain Harth said to Morreth, “you handled yourself and the responsibilities well,”
“Thank you, sir,” Morreth said, standing at attention.
“Would you be interested in spending more time on the bridge?” Harth asked, “It would be a good way to get experience. You won’t be a Lieutenant forever, after all,”
“Sir!” Morreth couldn’t believe his luck, “Yes sir! I’d like that a lot,”
“Good,” Harth nodded, “We’ll start with two shifts a week, starting next week. I’ll let Lt Commander Travs know. Dismissed,”
Morreth almost danced out of the ready room.
The door to the head opened and Comd Belis stepped out.
“You’re sure this is a good idea?” Harth asked him, “He’s nowhere near as experienced as Travs,”
“If you dangle a promotion in front of him, he’ll do anything you want” Belis said, “Like a…well, like a dog staring at a bone,”
“He certainly seems more…agreeable…than Lt Commander Travs,” he said, “But Dr. Wolfman is certain that he could never hold control over the Howler pack. He’s just too…nerdy?”
“I think ‘socially incompetent’ were the words he used,” Belis said, sitting on the couch and staring out the windows at the stars streaking by, “But we don’t need him to replace Travs in the long term,”
“Or so we hope,” Harth mused.
“Or so we hope,” Belis agreed, “No, she can lead the pack. From the field, I might add. But keeping an obedient tactical officer like Morreth back here means that they will be at our mercy. None of these little games Travs has been playing to protect her people. And SI won’t object, as long as a Howler is in that position,”
“You’re going to have to replace Travs eventually,” Belis pointed out, “After all, she’s-“
“Yes, I know,” Harth closed his terminal, “But that won’t be an issue for some time.’
He stepped towards the bridge, then tapped his comm-badge.
“Senior officers to the conference room. We have a new, furry development,” he said. He closed the channel, then turned to Belis, “A disobedient Howler is a major problem. A pregnant one, on the other hand, is Dr. Wolfman’s dream come true.”
The Howlers are shaken to the core when one of the science team experiments hit just a bit too close to home…and accidently discover a horrible, unbeatable foe! From Las Vegas!