Author: Brendan Chris
Ensign Greg Mayle twisted in the throes of his nightmare. He was still running, eagerly chasing at the scent of prey. But the forest around him had changed: Instead of the comfortable spread of branches above him blotting out the moon, the soft rustle of underbrush around him and the feeling of soft earth beneath his paws, his world had transformed into a hideous maze. The sun shone too brightly above him, birds shrieked hideously overhead and the ground was hard-baked to the point of being as hard as rock.
But none of that was going to stop him! He had the scent of the prey now…the scent of fear. The scent of panic. And something else…a scent that was not prey, but was not danger. A scent that was oddly familiar, but just beyond recognition.
He came around a corner and saw the prey cowering against the rear wall. Victory was to be his! He surged forward, only at the last minute seeing the other muscular, lupine shapes gathered in the clearing. They turned to him, teeth bared in snarls and eyes burning with fire. He ignored them, surging towards the prey, jaws opening as he went in for the kill-
And roaring in pain as he was thrown away!
“VILKAS!!!!” Mayle screamed, bolting awake and jumping clear off the bed.
“Yeah man, we know,” Ensign Porkchop said, giving Mayle a wave from where he was still lounging comfortably on the bed. The man’s last name wasn’t actually Porkchop, but Mayle had never heard any mention of his real name, not from the other Howlers and oddly enough not in any of the ship’s records, “We’ve been pulling shifts keeping an eye on you for weeks, and it’s always the same thing,” he reached into a nearby bucket and pulled out a fried chicken drumstick, “The only time you haven’t screamed ‘Vilkas’ was that night you didn’t have any nightmares. And that’s only because Dr. Wolfman was using you as the control group for the sedation experiments,”
“Why,” Mayle groaned tiredly, picking himself up off the floor, “are you eating fried chicken in my bed?”
“I was hungry,” Porkchop said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the work, “And I kept thinking of that Keetoonan crime-lord hit from last week. I just didn’t like picking the feathers out of my teeth.”
It said something for his time with the Howlers that there was a man in pyjamas in his bed, talking about eating a sentient (if in this case criminally insane) being, but the things that bothered Mayle the most were the crumbs on his sheets. He didn’t bother reminding Porkchop that he could have eaten just as easily (and more comfortably) at the small table near the replicator. After several months aboard the USS Farkas, he’d grown accustomed to the pack mentality of the Howlers. There was nothing sexual about Porkchop’s presence…but Mayle still wasn’t the sort to engage in platonic cuddles with buddies or coworkers. At least he’d at last been able to train the Howlers to avoid actually touching him. Most the time.
“I didn’t…say anything else, did I?” Mayle asked. He had only recently learned about the USS Vilkas, sister-ship to the USS Farkas and apparent test-bed to another group of Howlers that had gone completely berserk. Mayle had barely been able to glance at the files, but he had seen ‘50% casualties’ and ‘decommissioned, pending dismantling’. Odds are no one would be stumbling across the USS Vilkas anytime in the future. But he hadn’t told the rest of the Howlers what he knew, yet. Partly because finding the opportunity for frank, un-monitored discussion was so difficult aboard the Farkas. But also…also because he really wasn’t sure how to bring it up. ‘Hey, friends. Did you know there was a another group of you? And they went nuts and killed everyone around them?’. Right.
“No, same as every time. We keep hoping for something juicy, and you keep disappointing,”
“Story of my love life,” Mayle muttered.
The doors hissed open and Ensign Syl strode cheerfully in, completely and utterly nude, carefully mans-scaped bits swaying in the open as he strode into the room.
“Porkchop!” he whispered loudly in heavily accented Standard, “I am coming here to be relieving you! Your turn for naps,”
“I’m awake, Syl” Mayle grumbled, “And you’re naked. Again. You can’t keep doing this, man! Tomillo is going to be yelling at me in the morning. Again.”
“But it’s just so comfortable!” Sly stretched his arms over his head as Mayle pulled himself to his feet and started looking for his housecoat. In the process, he managed to knock over the stasis tube containing Felix, his Howler-hating cat. The tube crashed to the floor with an unhealthy-sounding electronic sizzle, then the soft glow of the stasis field faded.
“Guys,” he said softly, “Leave. Now. Quietly.”
“Aww, is that your cute, petite, little kitty-ca-AAAGGHHHH!!!” Sly screamed as a flash of fur shot from out of the tube, claws digging right into his exposed skin as Felix climbed up his leg, managing to kick Sly right in the jewels with a clawed paw as he worked his way up the French-Canadian Howler’s chest, over one shoulder and onto his back. Felix hissed, clinging to Syl’s shoulder as he tried to shake him off.
“OW! OW! Crisse de câlice de tabarnak d’osti de sacrament!” Syl screamed, rushing backward to try to pin the cat between his back and the wall. Felix jumped to a nearby bookshelf as Syl crashed over a potted plant and fell to the floor, then pounced back at his bare chest.
“Syl!” Porkchop rushed towards his fellow Howler, but jerked back at loud hiss and snap of teeth from the enraged cat.
“Porkchop! Table! Phaser!” Mayl shouted. Someone in the next cabin started banging against the wall and yelling at them to keep their kinky sex lives to themselves.
“I can’t shoot a cat!” Porkchop objected, “Can’t we just sing ‘Soft Kitty’ or something?”
“He’s not SOFT!” Syl wailed, “Osti d’épais de marde!”
Porkchop squeezed his eyes shut and pulled the trigger. The phaser whined, then there was a thud as a body fell limp against the floor.
“Did I get him?” Porkchop asked.
A short time later, Mayle and Porkchop dropped Syl’s phaser-stunned body onto a sickbay bio-bed. The man’s body was covered in oozing cuts, and Porkchop’s uniform had been shredded from the right shoulder right down to his wrist, which was also bleeding. Mayle had the stunned cat draped over one arm, the phaser tucked in his waistband.
“One of those nights, huh?” Nurse Bayles asked as she came over to survey the damage.
“Hey, hey, hey!” Dr. Wolfman objected, taking note of the patient, “You’re getting blood all over the fabric! We have drop sheets for this, people!”
“Why did you stun Ensign Syl if he was being attacked by your cat, anyway?” Bayles asked.
“Well, that part was an accident,” Porkchop admitted.
“Which is why you’re not supposed to have phasers in crew quarters,” Dr. Wolfman said sharply.
“Hey, do you know how much damage he would have done otherwise?”
“I do not understand why you have not yet vaporized the animal,” Science Officer Soruk said calmly, “Or at least had it declawed,”
“A hundred times,” Mayle sighed, too tired to wonder or even care why Soruk and Wolfman were in Sickbay in the middle of the night, “A hundred times since I arrived on this ship, I’ve asked.”
“And a hundred times since you’ve arrived, we’ve reminded you that declawing is inhumane, against regs, and hasn’t been done for centuries.” Dr Wolfman said reprovingly.
“Understood,” Soruk said as he started carefully collecting Syl’s blood from the sheet, “Regardless, I do appreciate the opportunity to collect such fresh blood and tissue samples from genuine flesh wounds as opposed to via hypospray. Perhaps the animal could be of assistance for future testing…” He turned to Felix and started checking his claws for Syl’s skin and blood.
“You want him? You can keep him,” Mayle grunted.
“You realize he probably WOULD vaporize him, right?” Porkchop murmured.
“Right. Look, could I get ANOTHER stasis tube? A long-term one? And maybe something to help me sleep for a few hours before I have to meet Travs in the Holodeck?”
“Of course,” Wolfman said cheerfully, “We don’t keep long-term units here in Sickbay, but I’ll request one. You can leave him in one of the medical units here until then. Um…by the way, where are Ensign Syl’s cloths?”
“Don’t ask,” Mayle grunted.
“You know, I’m all for healthy expressions of sexuality, but nudity and angry cats don’t mix,” Bayles said. She paused. “He wasn’t…you know…”
“NO!” Porkchop was aghast. He was standing near the head of Syl’s bio-bed, one hand on the unconscious man’s shoulder, “That’s DISGUSTING!”
“I had to ask,” Bayles shrugged, “Might have had to start an investigation.”
“THANK you,” Mayles gritted his teeth, “It’s not…” he sighed, “Never mind.”
“OK, pups,” Lieutenant Travs called out from the top of a small holographic hill, “Our next mission is going to be mostly normal. Starfleet Intelligence has a lead on a group of Nausican slavers in the vicinity of Tartin IV. These guys have eluded capture several times now, so we’re going…ahem.” Travs grimaced for a moment, her hand going towards her belly, “Going in,”
“Capture or kill?” Lieutenant Vanheath asked, swallowing nervously. He’d been filling in as Howlers 2IC with Morreth spending more time up on the bridge. sucking up to the senior staff and losing much of the trust of the team. Vanheath was also the father of Trav’s unborn…whatever…and things were slightly strained between them.
“Yes,” Travs said flatly.
“Got it,” Ensign Nacht nodded from his seat next to Vanheath, “Kill.”
“Or capture,” Vanheath reminded him.
“I guess that depends on whose team gets to those slavers first, doesn’t it?”
Travs was about the shush to two team leaders when Ensign Packman cut in.
“So what makes this one slightly not normal?” Packman asked, “I’m guessing that’s why the Science team sent me a crate that says ‘Do Not Open Until Ordered’?”
“Either that, or somebody sent us a cake,” Paulson said, “Or maybe a straight-jacket for Syl,”
“Hey,” Syl was next to her, wearing only a swimsuit, “These cuts, they are still healing. Cloth chafes them,”
“You can’t swear in Standard, but you know ‘chafe’?”
“I am a man of the galaxy,” Sly spread his arms, then winced, “Who has been through a râpe à fromage,”
Everyone looked at him, confused. Sighing, he activated his translator.
“A cheese grater.”
“As I said, these guys have escaped capture several times,” Travs said, “Starfleet and the Federation Marines have tried a frontal assault, but the slavers just dumped their merchandise and flee. So we’re sending someone in to cut-off their escape route. Then we send in the rest of the team to mop up.”
“With this group, a mop usually doesn’t cover it,” Mayle looked slightly green, “You usually need a decontamination team to clean up all the blood and guts.”
“Look, the difference with the Nausicans is that according to our intel, they’re using a fairly sophisticated sensor network around their compound,” Travs continued, hand still resting on her stomach, “The guys in the lab, well the ones that aren’t busy poking and prodding us, are trying to figure out how we can get a Howler past the sensors without setting them off and without breaking our cover if you’re seen or captured.”
“Guess that explains the crate,” Packman grunted.
“Yeah, don’t open that until Soruk disables the security lockout,” Travs warned him, “Or it’ll explode. I’m NOT kidding!” she snapped, turning to where Vorns was looking at the crate with interest.
“I wasn’t going to touch it,” he said, looking down at his feet, “I was just going to…”
“Mark your territory,” Mayle groaned, “Vorns, we’ve talked about this! One more incident and Tomillo is going to order you into diapers!”
“Anyway,” Travs said, “they’ve come up with some kind of inject-able nano-bots that are supposed to mask your life-signs for about half an hour. Then they go dormant and your body breaks them down. Obviously they don’t want us running amok with this stuff, so the dispenser, AKA the Big Mystery Crate, will only dispense the amount authorized by Soruk and Belis.”
“But that’s not the part we’re training right now,” Travs went on, “This is a stealth mission, and we can only get one Howler past the sensor net. One can be a malfunction…more is sabotage. So we’re going to do some try-outs to determine who the lucky pup is,”
“Today’s target,” Vanheath contemplated his list of ‘Most Annoying Celebrities in History’, “From the planet Earth, a man who apparently made music of some sort but was better known for his loud mouth than his talent: Kanye West. The location is based on our intel of the enemy base, standard stealth rules. Porkchop, you’re up first.”
The end of the day found Mayle seated with Syl in the small mess hall that was part of the Howler’s Den facilities. Paulson had been chosen for the mission, to the great surprise of nobody. Stealth had become her specialty since joining the team.
“Where the heck is Seeta,” Mayle asked, “We need to go over the comms setup for the mission.”
“She is with Porkchop,” Syl said, digging into a nearly raw steak, “They will be being here.”
The door hissed open and Porkchop and Paulson walked in, laughing about something. Mayle’s eyes narrowed…something was off. It took him only a second to figure it out: both were slightly flushed, Porkchop’s hair had been ruffled and they were standing even closer to each other than the Howler norm. The likely case wasn’t exactly a mystery, and as they sat Mayle set down his fork.
“You guys know,” he said quietly, “That if Travs gets wind of this someone will have to change teams? Not to mention what happens if we end up with another pregnant Howler!”
“We’re being careful,” Paulson said sharply, glancing quickl at Sly before turning back to Mayle, “You don’t need to lecture me!”
“I’m sorry,” Mayle said, “Maybe that was out of line. But…I mean, you know what Travs is going through right now. And we’re a team, right?”
“I know,” Paulson said, shooting another glance at Syl, who just shrugged, “It’s just…”
“No, you don’t need to explain anything to me,” Mayle waved her away, “It’s just…I don’t really want any of the Alpha team people moving to our team,”
“Be careful with ze, ‘ow you say, pack mentality,” Syl warned him.
“Be careful with ze, ‘ow you say, towel between your ass and ze furniture,” Mayle shot back with a grin.
They laughed, and Mayle was about to start going over the comms setup with Paulson when the doors hissed open again and Packman stepped in.
“Hey guys, hey Mayle,” he said, pausing and sniffing the air. He shook his head as if to clear it, then turned to Mayle, “Hey, the lab boys want to talk to me about some tech for an upcoming mission. Thought you might want to come with,”
“Yeah, sure,” Mayle said, “When?”
“Tomorrow, after everyone gets back from the mission,”
Packman left, leaving Mayle and Paulson to go through the arrangements for her mission while Syl and Porkchop finished eating. After they’d finished, the two male Howlers left the table, leaving Paulson and Mayle alone.
“Have you talked to Travs about her…situation?” Mayle asked.
“Why, because I’m the only other woman on the team?” Paulson shot right back. She immediately held up a hand in apology, “Sorry, you’re right. Chaos knows none of the guys on this team could dare approach the topic.” She paused for a moment, thinking. “I’m not even sure how to bring it up. ‘Hey boss, we all know you’re carrying a possible shape-shifting baby, since you got it on with a co-worker in front of everyone while you were both werewolves. Wanna talk about it?’.”
Mayle just gulped.
Paulson frowned, then her face fell. “She’s right behind me, isn’t she?”
“Yup,” Travs plopped down in the chair next to her, “She is,”
“I am SO-“
“Relax, I heard the first part,” Travs waved her away, “I know you weren’t being a bitch. And at this point, I could use the direct approach,” she dropped a small device about the size of a hockey puck on the table.
“Is that a surveillance scrambler?” Mayle asked. The small device was illegal as hell and packed with sophisticated anti-surveillance gear. At its most basic, it would cause noticeable interference with audio and video recordings. Of course, that would reveal the presence of the scrambler. So SI had equipped it with a small sensor and AI that would check for a variety of known surveillance devices, their weaknesses, and (where possible) algorithms to turn the most sensitive conversation into boring, inane chatter.
“Yeah, there was another anti-grav failure in the cargo hold. Broke open a case of about three hundred of these things. It’ll be weeks before they miss one or two,” Travs said, “And in the meantime, we can have a bit of privacy here and there,”
“Oh thank God,” Mayle’s face fell into his hands, “If I have to listen to the Big Bad Wolf blaring ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ on that trombone one more time, I’ll go insane!”
“So will Belis’ surveillance guy,” Travs informed him, “Morreth overheard him complaining the other day about our terrible taste in music. But I don’t trust Morreth right now, so nobody tells him about these things!” she looked at the scrambler, then put a hand over her stomach and lowered her voice, “On to business. I need to get this thing out of me. Now.” she said sharply.
“Oh,” Mayle was taken aback, while Paulson looked like she’d tasted something foul, “I…Commander, I just don’t think we can abort a-“
“That’s not what I meant!” Travs shouted. She winced, realizing even the scrambler might not cover that outburst, “I mean I want it out of me and into a uterine incubator!” she hissed more quietly, “Or a stasis tube! But I don’t want it in me, and I don’t trust Dr. Wolfman with it!”
“Ohhh,” Mayle said, more slowly this time. Aborting a fetus in the 24th Century was an incredibly rare event, reserved for the most extreme of medical emergencies. Moving a fetus to a surrogate mother or an artificial incubation unit was so routine as to be boring, “I’m sorry, it’s just that with all the-“
“Again, I know what you meant,” Travs cut him off, “What I don’t know is how we’re going to get the procedure done without involving Wolfman. Or where we can get a uterine incubator without anyone noticing!” A timer started beeping, and Travs grabbed the scrambler and rose to her feet, “We can talk more later. But think about how we can get around this. I know you’re close with a couple of the nurses,”
“Early to bed, Paulson,” Travs said as the light on the scrambler winked out, “You’ve got a big mission ahead of you tomorrow!” She left.
“Apparently, we both do,” Paulson said to Mayle.
The next day, Mayle was standing station in Transporter Room 2. Transporter Chief Bullion was working the transporter controls, while Mayle was once again standing at the side panel that had been setup to allow more detailed monitoring of Howler missions. Lt Travs was pacing back and forth as they went through the pre-mission checklist.
“Optical tracking?” Travs asked.
“Check,” Mayle replied, “I have locks on the beam-down site, east compound perimeter, the getaway ship and the main building,”
“No change from the probe we sent by yesterday,” Mayle confirmed, “Reading twenty-one Nausican life signs, along with nearly two hundred assorted life-forms, clustered in what we believe to be a holding area,”
“Beam scrambler?” This was directed at Chief Bullion. The beam scrambler was a small device about the size of a baseball that would fall through the planetary atmosphere, impact the ground near the beam-down site and begin emitting a signal that would mask the signal of any transporter beams.
“Launched eight minutes ago,” Bullion replied, her tone carefully professional, “We will have a thirty-minute window in three minutes, twenty seconds…mark.”
“Breadcrumbs?” Travs turned back to Mayle.
“I have them here,” he held up what looked like a dark piece of fabric but was in fact coated in tiny communications relays. The devices would drop off the cloth as Travs moved, leaving a path of transmitters using signals far too weak to be detected, but capable of relaying communications back to a more powerful transmitter at the beam-down site.
“Why aren’t they hanging off Paulson’s hind leg?” Travs demanded.
“Do you want them trailing all over the ship?” Mayle asked, “Also, she doesn’t have hind legs yet. Uh…ma’am.”
“Right,” Travs winced, her hand moving back to her stomach, “Where is she?”
“On her way,” Mayle glanced at the video feed from Paulson’s communications piece. It was showing the inside of a turbolift, with a pair of Farkas crewmen sneaking uneasy looks back at Paulson. One of them literally started to tremble.
Mayle frowned. Why? What could possibly have happened to the man to invoke that sort of response.
He looked back up as Travs gave another sound of discomfort.
“Would you like me to call Sickbay?” Chief Bullion asked politely.
“No,” Travs straightened back up, “It’s fine.”
Paulson walked in the door and moved across the room towards one of the equipment lockers. She yanked out the old uniform that one of the Howlers had left behind on the last mission and started to undress, packing away everything except the pink spandex underwear she wore during her change. With a series of deft gestures, she adjusted her comm-link over one ear, then grabbed the cloth strip Mayle was holding out and slipped it over one ankle.
“Ready,” she told Travs. Travs gave a nod, then Paulson closed her eyes and concentrated. Bullion turned away, but Mayle continued to watch as the dark fur spread across Paulson’s body, muscles rippling and sliding under her skin even as bones began to shift with a series of nauseating crunching sounds. The comm-link sensed the change, pieces turning on tiny hinges and changing shape to fit invisibly inside the canine ear as it slid from the side to the top of Paulson’s head. Her breasts vanished, leaving the bikini top tight against a flat, muscled chest. As the pink cloth stretched it became porous, letting the dark fur through and nearly becoming invisible, giving only a faint colour to the skin occasionally visible beneath the fur. More than enough for Mayle to tell the Howlers apart, but not enough for the casual observer to notice anything. Granted, the casual observer was more likely to be gazing into a maw filled with sharp teeth about to tear their throat out.
Paulson dropped to all fours as the transformation finished, then leaped up to the transporter pad. Travs reached forward and pressed a hypospray to her flank, injecting her with the sensor-scrambling nanobots that Belis had authorized the Mystery Crate to dispense.
“You know the plan,” Travs said “Once you’re in position to block the Nausicaans from their ship, the rest of the team will beam down.”
“My board is green,” Mayle said a little too loudly, a hint to Bullion that she could turn around. She cleared her throat, then turned to face the transporter pad. Paulson met her eyes and gave her a very human nod.
“Energizing,” Bullion said.
Paulson materialized as planned just outside the range of the Nausican sensor network. She was in the relatively sheltered space where a boulder had eons ago come to rest against a relatively shallow cliff, shielded from sight from all but one direction. She started carefully sniffing the air, the Howler instincts screaming, hunting for every possible sign of prey. There were plenty of indications that there used to be prey in the area: faded scents of spoor, the gamy scent of alien fur, even some faded prints in the ground not far from her. But compare to most live forests, this one was relatively quiet.
Something had been killing the local wildlife. The question was, what? And was it potentially dangerous to her?
Her human intelligence took over, looking for other indications. There was no scent of burned or seared flesh, which made everything from old-style electric fences to auto-targeting defensive phaser turrets very unlikely. Predators would have scents of their own, and neither Paulson nor the Howler instincts found any sign of that. But there was the scent of dried blood. And very faint, a slightly smoky smell that the Howler didn’t know, but that Paulson thought might be…fire? Smoke? No…gun-powder.
Hunting. Or more likely, target practice. The Nausicans, probably bored guards, were using the assorted wildlife near the camp as target practice, with primitive old projectile weapons.
With a snort, Paulson lowered herself to the ground and carefully skulked along the cliff edge until she found a path up. Unnoticed, the tiny breadcrumb nano-bots detached from the cloth around her ankle.
“The edge of the sensor net is about twenty meters past the top of the rise,” Mayle’s voice came in her ear, “The guards are still patrolling about two hundred meters past that, but you’ll have a two-minute opening in about ninety seconds,”
Paulson gave a soft grunt of acknowledgement. The Nausican compound was a collection of pre-fabricated buildings scattered through a heavily wooded area. The sensor network and patrolling guards kept anything big from getting in or out of the perimeter, but the slavers were far more concerned about any of the merchandise escaping as opposed to an outside attack. A small but fast ship was parked near a clearing; a stealthy craft built to hide as long as possible, then outrun any pursuit. The small ship was a big part of the reason why no one had been able to catch up with the slavers. Up until now, anyway. A landing field showed where larger craft had landed, presumably buyers and sellers of the slaves.
“You’re clear,” Mayle said.
Paulson glanced to both sides to confirm the guard was far enough away, then bolted forward. She passed a pair of what were probably sensor arrays, but there was no indication she’d been detected. She was nearly silent, the heavy pads of her paws lightly grabbing the earth as she ran. Long before the patrolling guard reversed his course, she was well hidden between a fallen tree and the wall of one of the prefabs.
“Harth to Travs. Report,” the voice of the USS Farkas’ Captain filtered down through the comm.
“Paulson has breached the Nausicaan perimeter,” Travs reported. Next to her Mayle worked the sensor systems, speaking to Paulson softly as Bullion maintained the transporter lock, “Alpha and Beta teams are standing by to beam down and take out the slavers once she is in position,”
“You know it’s capture OR kill, right?” Harth asked mildly.
“We’ll capture whomever we don’t have to kill, sir.” Travs replied, “And these are slavers, remember? The lowest form of scum.”
“I wasn’t objecting to your methods,” Harth’s voice was almost…approving? “Try not to track blood up and down the corridors this time. The cleaning bots have been unhappy lately.”
Travs rolled her eyes. “Understood. Travs out.”
The transporter room was quiet for several moments. Mayle monitored Paulson as she moved through the slaver camp. Travs paced the room, supervising. Then Chief Bullion tapped at her panel, confirming that the other transporter room on the deck was ready to help deliver a double dose of Howler fury as soon as the slaver’s escape route was cut off. All in all it was a fairly routine mission. Almost dull, really. The stakes weren’t even that high. They risked a single Howler who, even if discovered, could probably fight her way out without getting more than a few scratches. If it weren’t for Travs occasionally moving a hand towards her stomach, he could almost believe that things were…well, normal wasn’t really a word he could apply to the Howlers and the USS Farkas. But as close as it got to normal.
The doors hissed open and Syl walked into the room, completely naked.
“This isn’t a good time,” Mayle sighed, “Syl, why? WHY can’t you just put pants on for ten minutes?”
“Hmm?” Syl looked down, “MERDE!!! I forgot!”
He turned tail…tails? Whatever. He turned around quickly and left.
Travs was shaking her head.
“I don’t understand that one,” she said, “I understand most of the Howler quirks…I’ve struggled with all of them myself at one time or another,”
“Even peeing on things and eating dead animals?” Mayle shot her a smirk.
“Shut up. Yes.” Travs continued pacing, “But the nudity, I don’t get. Really, once you get used to having fur, bare flesh is actually…sort of chilly.”
“Hmm,” Mayle watched as Paulson contemplated the slaver escape ship. There were two guards standing next to the open hatch, and she’d managed to get herself close enough that the slightest movement could tip them off to her location.
“So no,” Travs went on, “I don’t feel the urge to walk around naked. Plenty of other urges,” her hand went to her belly again, “And I’ll never look at cats the same way again. But not nudity.”
The transporter chief was remaining very carefully silent.
“And I bet you’ll always go for the better brand of dog food from the replicator if you ever get a pet,” this time Mayle caught Travs’ eye, then quickly glanced at the very uncomfortable Chief Bullion. She caught on at once.
“Oh, for sure,” she said, “But I’m never going to be able to go to baseball games again,”
“Really. Baseball?” Mayle kept his eye on his display as Paulson slowly eased back from her position, presumably thinking of some way to distract the guards, “I would have thought horse races would be the problem. With the little holographic rabbit?”
“I spent HOURS chasing after one of those things on the holodeck!” Travs said. She was struggling to keep a straight face as Bullion’s face twitched.
“It’s probably a good thing I can’t change to Howler form,” Mayle said, “I mean, I’d sit around all day, and fall off the couch anytime I tried to lick my-“
The doors to the transporter room opened again, this time revealing Syl, wearing a standard-issue housecoat. Sort of.
“ENSIGN!” Travs snapped, “You’re supposed to close the housecoat over your…your junk, and tie the belt!”
“Oh. Right,” Syl quickly complied.
“Why are you here, Syl? Travs and I are sort of in the middle of something,” Mayle asked.
“Are you playing the game where you make things up and try to get the Chief to…oh…oops,” Syl at least had the good grace to look sheepish.
“I KNEW IT!” Bullion exclaimed, “I KNEW you two were messing with me!”
“Well…we were bored,” Travs shrugged, “And sorry, I guess.”
Bullion looked thoughtful for a moment.
“It’s cool,” she decided, “And I suppose I got a show out of the deal,” she looked dryly over a Syl, “At least you’re a real Frenchman in one regard,”
“Hey, don’t you be starting on the glorious Belle Province again!”
“Enough you two…uugghhHHH!!!” Travs let out an uncomfortable goan-
-As suddenly fur erupted over her entire body! Her flesh writhed, bones snapping loudly as her body quickly adjusted and shifted, and far more quickly than normal there was a fully grown Howler standing in the middle of the room. Her uniform hung in shredded tatters, her boots had split with matching pops as her feet exploded out of them.
“Rawrr….raaatts….aaahhhaaahhheeeccctaaaa….” Travs dropped to all fours and tried to speak, then shook her head in frustration as the words couldn’t get past her canine mounth.
Mayle, Syl and Bullion all stared in shock.
“Are you OK?” Mayle asked.
Travs tried to answer again, then just nodded her head. Her eyes darted to Mayle’s panel and she snarled, shaking her nose in the direction of the screen.
“Shit!” Mayle turned back just in time to see Paulson spring at the two guards next to the escape ship. The orbital image wasn’t great, but he could still see two very messy splashes of blood as she mauled the two slavers, then darted into the ship.
“Howlers! Alpha and Beta! You’re up!”
Syl immediately started changing, though at least he had the foresight to cast off his housecoat. The rest of Beta team must have already changed, as they were in the transporter room in seconds, ready to go. Even so, Alpha team was already materializing by the time Beta had taken their positions on the pad. Mayle realized they must have been waiting on the pad in the other transporter room this entire time. He turned to Bullion.
“This is the part where it gets messy,” he advised her, “So you may not want to be looking over here.”
“Bloodbath to the right of me. Fangs to the left,” Bullion eyed Travs uneasily.
“Here I am, stick here in the middle, with you,” Mayle finished off the slightly modified version of the old Earth song.
And just as quickly as it had come on, Travs’ transformation ended. Fur vanished, bones returned to normal, flesh returned to its usual contours.
Her uniform did not un-shred itself.
“Excuse me,” Travs said, getting up from the deck, moving quickly to the equipment replicator and dialing up a fresh uniform.
On the screen, Mayle was actually fairly impressed at the slaver’s response to the sudden Howler onslaught. Just as Starfleet Intelligence had reported, they quickly abandoned their merchandise and ran straight for the getaway ship. Only this time they had a surprise in the form of a shaggy, snarling Howler. One slaver brought up his firearm, the bullet hitting Paulson in the shoulder. She barely seemed to feel it, leaping at the offending slaver in a flash and tearing out his throat. She was immediately back inside the ship, ducking to the side as one or two panicked shots managed to track towards her, but by then the slavers were screaming in horror.
Their screams didn’t last long. Alpha and Beta teams found them very quickly. Mayle focused his attention on other sensor readings while the slavers were ‘captured or killed’. Judging from the plummeting life sign count, few if any were actually being captured.
He turned his attention to the readings coming back on the captive slaves. One of the Alpha Team Howlers was carrying a disguised tricorder, set to relay readings back to the ship. Mayle could see the slaves were in good health, which didn’t especially surprise him. Quality merchandise commanded a higher price, after all. From the preliminary readings it looked like they could wait a day or two until SI diverted a Starfleet ship to pick them up. The Farkas could rescue them, but then they’d have to either come up with a good cover story for why they happened to be there at the exact same time as a crazy animal attack, or they’d have to do a round of memory wipes.
Both teams of Howlers seemed to be finished. Alpha Team ducked into the ship and, out of sight, changed back to humanoid form. They would bring the ship up to the Farkas shuttlebay, with the slaves assuming that one of their captors had escaped.
Beta Team ran a kilometer or so away from the compound and prepared for beam-out. Mayle was about to shut down his optical feed when he noticed two of the burly beasts nuzzling, their muzzles briefly touching in an unmistakable gesture of affection.
Mayle was about to roll his eyes at Paulson and Porkchop’s lack of discretion, but then he noticed the colours of the spandex barely showing beneath their fur. Paulson was definitely the pink one, but instead of Porkchop’s green, he saw orange. Syl’s orange.
“Shit” he muttered. As if fraternization weren’t enough, now they had to deal with infidelity.
“This is why dating your coworkers is a bad idea,” he muttered.
“Excuse me?” Bullion asked him sharply.
The following morning most of the Howlers were gathered around the captured slaver ship that had been parked in the Farkas’ shuttlebay. The ship had been brought up by Ensign Yurakar shortly after the attack on the slavers, and her eager comments on the ship had piqued everyone’s interest. They would have been down to check it out earlier, but Dr. Wolfman had been so excited by Paulson’s bullet wound that he’d brought both teams into Sickbay to check for ‘unnoticed injuries’.
“Right,” Paulson had sneered, “A Howler might not notice a small-calibre gunshot wound. But I’m telling you, as soon as you’re back to human-size, you DAMNED WELL NOTICE!”
“Why did we keep this ship?” Ensign Trimble asked. The slim male was looking down at a tricorder as he careful scanned the ship, “It makes it look like one of the slavers escaped. The victims won’t be happy about that,”
“I don’t know,” Travs replied, “But I guess Captain Harth decided it was worth keeping,”
“Actually,” a slightly nasal voice came from behind them, “it was Commander Belis whom realized the obvious value of having a discreet vessel on board,”
“I think you mean ‘who’,” Travs turned, her voice chilly. Sure enough, Lt Morreth had entered the shuttlebay along with the previously mentioned Commander Belis.
Commander Belis was the Farkas’ First Officer, and to most of the Howlers he was an obnoxious, overbearing, hateful man who took every opportunity to make their lives miserable. Only Mayle had any indication something else might be going on, having had a very strange conversation with Belis. He still wasn’t sure what the man was doing, or what his motivations were. But he had definitely learned that Belis was hiding as much from Captain Harth and his Starfleet Intelligence crew-mates as he was hiding from the Howlers.
But despite being disliked by the Howlers, it wasn’t Belis that everyone started glaring at. Almost simultaneously the Howlers turned dark looks towards Morreth, some of them even baring their teeth in a manner that would have been terrifying on a Howler or even a Klingon, but on a human was somewhat less than threatening. Morreth was still technically Travs’ second-in-command, but he spent as much time working on the bridge these days as he did training with the team. And even when he was present, the growing animosity was making his presence more of a disruption than anything. It didn’t help that it seemed as though he’d been excused from more than a few laboratory sessions lately.
“What do YOU want?” Vanheath demanded, unconsciously moving between Travs and Morreth. Travs immediately pushed him aside.
“Hold on a moment,” Belis said. He grabbed a PADD from his belt and fiddled with it, “Sorry, Dr. Wolfman will want footage of this fascinating behaviour,”
“There’s no need to be hostile,” Morreth sniffed, “I’m here to help with the assessment of this ship’s tactical systems,”
“You wouldn’t know proper tactical systems from a slingshot,” Trimble sneered.
“As you were, Ensign,” Morreth looked down his ridged nose at Trimble.
“He’s right, Ensign,” Vanheath said, “That’s no way to talk to a higher-ranking officer.” He slipped a hand to his Lieutenant pips, put a surprised expression on his face, then looked back at Morreth. “Oh. We’re the same rank. And you wouldn’t know proper tactical systems from a slingshot!”
“I’ve been expanding my skill-set while you’ve been…playing in the woods,” Morreth replied, with a thinly veiled glance toward Travs.
“Yes, he’s been quite helpful,” Belis said, “In fact, he will be joining us for a small dinner the Captain will be holding this evening,”
Morreth gave the rest of the Howlers a look that was positively smug.
“Oh, congratulations,” Travs said dryly.
“Carry on, Ensign,” Belis said to Morreth. The pale Klingon moved towards the ship and started poking around at an open access port.
“Ensign Mayle, you’re supposed to be our liaison,” Belis said reprovingly, “I suggest you liaise these Howlers into something resembling a professional attitude before young Lt Morreth gets hurt.”
“It’s fine,” Travs cut him off, “We were just leaving.”
None of the Howlers showed much inclination to leave.
“NOW.” Travs said firmly.
Reluctantly, they turned away from Morreth and the ship and started moving towards the exit.
“Enjoy your party,” Travs said.
“I’m sure we will,” Belis looked Mayle square in the eyes, “All the senior staff will be there,”
He looked down his nose at Travs.
“Well. Most of the senior staff,” he amended. He turned and walked to the ship.
Fury in her eyes, Travs stormed out of the shuttle-bay.
“Most of the senior staff!” she fumed. Mayle struggled to keep up as she stormed down the corridor, “The nerve of that asshole! If they don’t want me there, it’s fine! But there is no reason he has to make such a point of it! Absolute asshole-“
“We should talk…” Mayle tried to say, but Travs ignored him.
“Your hand!” Mayle snapped.
Travs looked down and saw that yes, she was starting to change again. She stopped in her tracks, nearly causing Mayle to crash into her. She took deep breaths, closed her eyes…and spontaneously turned into a fully grown Howler.
“hrriitttt!” she exclaimed.
Even with the Howler inability to articulate, Mayle was still able to translate that one.
It took a while for Travs to calm down enough for the sudden transformation to subside, which unfortunately led to an attentive crewman noticing that a Howler was walking around the ship in their somewhat furrier-than-usual form. Before they knew it, they were being ‘politely escorted’ to Sickbay.
“Not a word,” Travs said under her breath. There was a brief wave across her features as her skin darkened and fur threatened to burst through, but she made a visible effort to calm herself.
“Well, well,” Dr. Wolfman said cheerfully as Travs was seated on the bio-bed, “I was just reviewing the security footage-“
“Spy cams,” Travs said flatly.
“-and it seems you’re having some unexpected transformations?” Wolfman didn’t even seem to notice what she’d said, “That’s fascinating! I’m sure it’s simply hormonal imbalances related to the fetus, but why the virus would react to that…ohh, that is marvellous! Let me get my endocrine analyzer kit, and we’ll see what’s going on there!”
Nurse Carolyne Bayles gave them an apologetic look as she took Travs’ vitals. Mayle swallowed. He and Bayles had gone on a single date weeks earlier, but it had not ended well. He’d done his best to avoid her, but the sheer volume of trips to Sickbay imposed on the Howlers made that all but impossible.
“So,” Mayle tried making conversation as Bayles buttered around, “How is-“
“Not. A. Word.” Travs cut him off.
“Maybe I should just go…”
“No, you’re staying,” Travs gave Bayles a cool look, “I don’t want to be alone in this Chamber of Horrors without a witness to report just who it was that wound up killing me,”
“Hey!” Bayles started to object, but was cut off as Dr, Wolfman returned.
“OK,” he said, “There does seem to be a minor hormone imbalance. Probably stress. Have you been in any high-stress situations lately?”
Both Travs and Mayle just stared at him blankly.
“Right,” Wolfman at least had the good grace to look abashed at the absurdity of the question, “Force of habit. Hmmm. Well, I could give you something for the imbalance, but I have no idea what effect that will have on your ability to change.”
“An excellent opportunity to experiment,” a new voice broke into the discussion.
Travs and Mayle both blew out a frustrated breath. Just when it looked like they might actually catch Wolfman on a day when he might behave like a decent human being, of course somebody else had to rush in to make sure the scales didn’t balance. In this case, that someone was Science Officer Soruk.
“Thought you were off duty,” Nurse Bayles commented.
“I simply heard a Howler had been admitted to Sickbay,” Soruk lifted an eyebrow, “Logically, my presence would be beneficial to any potential scientific inquiries,”
“Ah yes, the benefits of illness, injury or disease,” Travs nearly spat.
“I believe even on your Earth, primitive human doctors learned that exposure to one disease could lead to immunity to another, more severe disease? The pox, if memory serves.”
“And a pox on both your houses!” Travs shot back.
Wolfman looked confused, but Soruk if anything appeared to be impressed.
“Romeo and Juliet, Act Three, Scene One,” Soruk said, “Though I believe the original was ‘plague’, not ‘pox’. In any event, I think an amniotic fluid analysis would be beneficial,” he turned to Nurse Bayles, “Please withdraw a sample and have it delivered to Science Lab 2 before the end of the duty shift,”
“Don’t forget the Cap…um…” Wolfman cut himself off with a glance at Travs, “We have that…thing. Prior engagement. No working late today,”
“I did not forget,” Soruk rebuked him, “I simply wish to have the sample prepared for analysis at the beginning of my shift tomorrow,”
“Apologies,” Wolfman nodded curtly, still refusing to meet Travs’ gaze, “Nurse, I think you are familiar with the procedure. If you’ll excuse me,”
Wolfman gave Mayle a knowing look, then the doctor was out of there like he had a warp drive shoved up his ass.
Soruk lifted an eyebrow, nodded at Travs, then left Sickbay.
Travs looked at Mayle for a moment, then turned to Bayles.
“Is this going to take long?” she asked.
“Is what going to take long?” Bayles asked.
“The amniotic sample!”
“Oh, that,” Bayles shrugged, then held up a piece of medical equipment, “I already took it. Once Soruk gets the chance to go over it, I’ll make sure you get a copy of any results,”
“Right, the way the science team is always so open with us?” Travs voice was brittle.
Bayles looked down for a minute.
“This is different,” she said quietly.
“I…sorry,” Travs said, “It’s not your fault.”
“Thanks,” Bayles seemed to recover her usual confidence, “Dinner tonight?” she asked Mayle.
“I’ll take that as a yes. See you around 1900,”
“Something fishy is going on,” Travs said as she led Mayle back toward the Howler’s Den. As soon as the turbolift doors closed she turned to him. “Start talking!”
“How did I end up with another date with Bayles?” Mayle wondered, “I thought she hated me after the way the last one ended?”
“GREG!” Travs said, “Focus!”
The doors opened to reveal Syl and Paulson, frantically making out as they waited for the lift.
“Get a room!” Travs exclaimed, grabbing Mayle by the arm and moving towards her office.
“On our way!” Syl managed to get out before Paulson yanked him into the turbolift.
“Right,” Mayle shook his head, putting Bayles on the back burner, “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to bring this up, but I think we have a fraternization problem,”
“No kidding,” Travs said dryly as she led Mayle into her office, “And what was your first clue? You think in a group of people who are cut off, alienated and forced to spend most of their time together that this is the first time two of them have gotten it on?”
Mayle bit his lip and looked everywhere except at Travs.
“Other than Vanheath and I, for Pete sake!” Travs sighed, then pulled out one of the surveillance scrambler pucks, “Greg, forget them and tell me what’s going on!”
“Well, I don’t think it’s just a fraternization problem,” Mayle said, “I think there’s infidelity happening, and THAT could be a big morale prob-“
“FORGET PAULSON AND HER BOYFRIENDS!” Travs snapped, “Why are the senior staff going to so much trouble to make sure that YOU know that I’m not invited to their fancy party tonight!!??”
“Oh. Right,” Mayle frowned, “Boyfriends? You knew about this? How many boyfriends does she-“
“I caught Paulson and Porkchop going at it in a Jefferies tube this morning,” Paulson said impatiently, “And Vanheath caught all three of them in the Holodeck behind Grandma’s Cottage!”
“All three…they’re a thruple?” Mayle blinked.
“How did you NOT know that, Mr Liaison Officer?” Now Travs looked amused. Impatient, but amused, “Everyone on the team knows that! They’ve been together for a while! We just let them think we don’t know. But they know we probably know, and so on.”
“I never would have thought Syl was interested in Porkchop,” Mayle shrugged, “Or vice versa,”
“Yes, it’s fascinating, it’s cute, good for them, but can we PLEASE get back to the point at hand?”
Mayle mentally changed gears, “Right. OK. Sorry. I think Belis wants you to know that Wolfman is going to be busy tonight,”
“Obviously. So what?”
“So,” Mayle pointed at Travs’ belly. She was still far too early in the pregnancy to be showing, but she took his meaning immediately.
“So if I wanted to, say, move this fetus into a uterine incubator, then tonight would be the night,” Travs said slowly. She thought for a moment, “But why would Belis be so helpful?”
Mayle bit his lip. So far he hadn’t told anybody else about his strange meeting with Belis in the science lab, when the other officer had offered his help with the Howlers’ aural vulnerabilities. And he hadn’t told anyone else that the USS Farkas had had a sister ship, the USS Vilkas, that had apparently been lost in some sort of Howler-related catastrophe.
“Mayle?” Travs prompted.
Mayle glanced at the surveillance scrambling puck, then made a decision.
“I don’t think Belis is our enemy,” he said.
Travs couldn’t have looked more skeptical if the Founders of the Dominion had come in and offered to let her do a cannon-ball into the Great Link.
“I don’t know why,” Mayle went on, “Or who he works for. But I’m pretty sure it’s NOT Captain Harth,”
Travs thought back to when she’d tracked Belis to a clandestine meeting on Starbase 59. “He wants us in a lab,” she said, “Badly.”
“We’re already IN a lab,” Mayle pointed out, “They watch us, study us, poke, prod and subject us to all manner of experiments. What the hell does he gain by getting us off this ship and putting us in a different lab, hidden away on some planet?”
“Our safety,” Travs said softly. Pieces in her mind broke free, spun around, then clicked into new shapes, “He’s not trying to imprison us, we’re already prisoners. He’s trying to…protect us?”
“We’re being used,” Mayle said, “How long can they keep using the Howlers like this? Mission after mission, extrajudicial killings, the isolation…even without the science crap, you guys are on borrowed time until someone cracks!”
Travs was quiet for a moment.
“What?” Mayle asked, “What aren’t you telling me?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she said, “OK, look. Whether Belis is on our side or not, we know the senior staff is going to be busy. I think Nurse Bayles was trying to tell us that she’s willing to help with the…the fetus. And we know that Soruk is going to be gone, so maybe we hit Science Lab 2 while we’re at it.”
“Wait, you mean Bayles wasn’t actually asking me on a date?”
“Maybe she was doing that too,” Travs said, “But why at that exact moment?”
“Oh,” Mayle looked down.
“Come on, we have bigger things to worry about than your love life!” Travs said, tossing the puck in a drawer and moving to the door.
“We’re going to have to move fast tonight,” she said, “And we’re going to need a distraction.”
“Why? We know the senior staff is going to be busy,” Mayle asked.
“It’s not for the transfer,” Travs said, “It’s for what comes before,”
Mayle stepped into the main mess hall on Deck 2 a few minutes before 1900 and immediately spotted Nurse Bayles. He approached her table, but she was on her feet before he could sit down, taking him by the elbow and leading him to one of the replicators mounted on the far bulkhead.
“I’m starving, and I don’t want to deal with the holo-waiter!” she said. Was it Mayle’s imagination, or was she speaking louder than normal? “There’s a new recipe for stir-fry that I’ve been wanting to try.” She gave a small giggle, “Heh. That rhymed.”
When Mayle didn’t respond, she nudged him with her shoulder.
“Oh!” he said, understanding she wanted him to say something, but having absolutely no understanding of what or why, “Um…sounds good, but too many noodles. But there’s a Romulan tar-tare dish that Syl keeps raving about. I guess I will try that?” He cleared his throat, hating how stilted and artificial that had sounded.
They place their orders, waited while the replicators shimmered into action and produced the desired meals, then moved to a table near the center of the small room. Mayle’s eyes flickered around at the other officers and crewmen present, but unlike when he had first arrived on the ship no one was paying him much attention. Crewman Fraks was glaring at him from a corner table, but that wasn’t anything new. The Xenexian had always hated him.
“So,” Mayle took a bite of whatever the hell it was that was on his plate…definitely a pile of thinly-sliced and spiced raw meat, but beyond that he had no idea, “How was, um, the rest of your shift?”
“Fine,” Bayles said, looking nervously around the room. She took a few bites of her stir-fry, then looked towards the door.
“Think the Howlers are going the crash our date again?” Mayle asked. Good lord, was it him? How had his dating life turned into such a disaster since he’d come aboard the Farkas? OK, fine. He’d never been Studsly McSuave, but he was usually fully capable of going on a normal date with an attractive woman. Or a man, on one occasion in his late teens. Hey, he’d been curious. Turned out his heart only beat for the female sex. But anyway, surely Carolyn wasn’t nervous because of their date, right? This had to do with Travs’ situation. Had to be. He took another bite of his Romulan tar-tare. Despite the name, he was sure it wasn’t actually Romulan flesh but the meat of some Romulan animal.
On the other hand, he wasn’t much more confident in that assessment than in his assessment of Bayles and their ‘date’.
“No, of course not,” Bayles finally said, giving him an uncomfortable sort of grin, “It’s just-“
The doors to the mess hall hissed open and Ensign Becky Ianda strode in quickly. She looked around, spotted Mayle and Bayles and gave them a wave. Mayle couldn’t help but notice that Bayles looked relieved.
“It’s just been a long day,” she finished.
“Hmm. Not every day you get to examine a werewolf fetus, I suppose?” Mayle had meant that line to sound like he was joking. He really had. But it landed between them with a thump that he swore rattled the cutlery. Bayles looked down at her plate, her expression unreadable.
He was about to open his mouth to say something else when Ianda set her tray down on their table and pulled up a chair.
“Good, I’m glad I found you two,” she said, digging into a strange, blue pasta dish and speaking between bites, “Mayle, your guys damaged that secure crate when they brought it back to Cargo Bay Two. You and I have to go over it and file an incident report before I can get someone to fix it.”
“I’m sort of busy,” he gestured to Nurse Bayles. Then he jumped a little in his chair…whose hand was suddenly on his thigh??
“It’s fine,” Bayles said, looking him right in the eye, “I was actually hoping I’d run into Becky. Did you know she and I both did competitive ski slalom at the Academy?”
“You’d be surprised,” Ianda said, still shovelling pasta into her mouth, “how many ski resorts are within a shuttle ride of San Francisco,”
“OK?” Now Mayle was getting very confused. What the heck did Ianda have to do with anything? Or focusing on the mission at hand, what did Ianda have to do with getting a fetus out of its mother and into an incubation unit?
“Oh, do you remember that assistant coach?” Bayles asked with a grin, the tense atmosphere of a moment ago having vanished, “The one from Delta IV?”
“Remember him?” Ianda snorted, “The entire team was lusting for him the entire season. Head Coach made him start wearing an environmental suit to keep those Deltan pheromones in check!”
“I played…water polo. For intramurals,” Mayle muttered timidly, “No Deltans were involved. But we did play a mostly female Klingon team during the Exchange Week with the Klingon Imperial Academy.”
“Oh yeah?” to Mayle’s mild surprise both women directly their full attention his way, “I bet the after-party was…intense?”
“Well,” Mayle swallowed another mouthful, “None of us knew to read poetry. But they sure threw stuff. Half our team was in the infirmary the next day. For one reason or another,”
“Travs to Ianda,” Ianda’s comm-badge chirped, “I’m at the cargo bay. You aren’t. I thought you said this was urgent,”
“Just came up to get Mayle,” Ianda said, finishing off her pasta, “And some supper. We’ll be down in a minute.” She looked at Mayle and Bayles, “Sorry to interrupt your date, but duty calls.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, I’ll just come with,” Bayles said cheerfully. “C’mon, Greg. Let’s get this done. Then maybe we can check up on your cat? You mentioned problems with his stasis tube.”
“Uhhh…sure?” Was it Mayle’s imagination, or was Carolyne talking loudly again? Almost like she was…
She was performing before an audience.
Mayle suddenly stiffened. There was a plan unfolding in front of him, but why? And what part was he supposed to play? What was he supposed to say? Do? Maybe following the two women as they rose from the table and started for the exit would be a good start.
Mayle quickly rose to follow them, ignoring the occasional cat-call about ‘how well his date was going’ on the way out.
Between passing crew-members in the corridors, security cameras in the turbolifts and a healthy dose of paranoia, they were almost at Cargo Bay Two by the time Mayle was able to whisper discreetly in Bayles’ ear.
“What’s the plan?” he asked.
“No idea,” Bayles replied, “We’re sort of winging it,”
“WINGING IT?” Mayle squeaked, “But you planned for Becky to be here, right?”
“No, I think that was Travs’ idea,” Bayles replied.
“Ohhhh…shit. Shit-shit-shit-shit-shit…” Mayles muttered. He shut up as they approached the heavy double doors leading into the cargo bay. They opened, revealing a very annoyed looking Travs standing next to the crate that was supposed to dispense tiny, sensor-jamming nano-bots when authorized. It had clearly been dropped on one corner, as said corner was thoroughly busted. There was no sign of leakage or anything, but as he approached Travs his comm-badge made a decidedly unhappy sound.
“That’s not going to explode, is it??” he demanded.
“No,” Travs said, crossing her arms sternly across her chest, “The shielding is damaged, so the bots are causing some localized interference. But the containment and dispensing systems are fine. It won’t explode unless someone tampers with them,”
“Great,” Ianda said, in a tone indicated the current situation was anything but great, “Don’t mind the crewmen working here. Don’t mind the men and women with, oh, families and lives to live. Let’s just play with explosives!”
Mayle looked over at Ianda. Something in her voice…and her expression. He looked to Travs, but she was meeting Ianda’s gaze perfectly.
“Then let’s do the report, log it, and store this safely where it won’t be a danger to anyway.” she said. She turned to Bayles, “Nurse, keep your distance. This should be fine, but just in case.”
“Of course, Lt Commander,” Bayles said. She walked back towards the entrance to the cargo bay and opened up the panel containing the emergency med-kit. “Just in case.”
Mayles’ comm-badge made another unhappy sound. “Is it safe to talk?” he asked, very quietly.
“Quietly,” Travs said, pretending to inspect the damaged crate, “I doubt the audio pickups in the cargo bay are affected, but our comm-badges won’t work,”
“Actually, the security system in this cargo bay is down for maintenance tonight,” Ianda said, “But it’s OK, because the Captain authorized comm-badge monitoring inside this bay until it’s back online. And those are dead now. Of course, no one is supposed to know that,”
“How did you even get involved in this?” Travs demanded. Still quietly.
“More of us are involved than you think,” Ianda said, “You think you two are the first people to think this whole thing is a bad idea?”
“How do we know who to trust?” Mayles asked.
“That’s a good question,” Ianda replied. She did not, Mayle and Travs both noticed, answer it.
“So now what?” Mayles asked, “We’ve done a lovely job of getting Travs and I to the cargo bay, but I don’t see how that helps us!”
“Heath’s surveillance goons keep a very close eye on Sickbay,” Ianda explained, “We can’t just walk you in there! We need an excuse to get you there, but something that won’t bring the senior staff running. Once you’re in there, we can use one of those jammer pucks that were ‘accidentally’ dropped to blip the Sickbay monitors off for the few minutes we need without it looking suspicious.”
“So it wasn’t really an anti-grav failure that broke open that storage unit,” Mayle realized, “And this is the distraction you mentioned,” he said to Travs.
“Now I need to be injured,” Travs replied.
“Or irradiated,” Ianda said, “Ensign Sibbit is working with a radiation-based sensor jammer in Science Lab 2, just down the corridor. That’s the backup plan,”
“But I don’t think radiation is the way to go,” Ianda finished.
“No kidding. So how do we get Bayles and I to Sickbay?” Travs demanded.
“Don’t forget you have to buy enough time to move the fetus?” Mayles said.
The three of them looked at each other.
“Well, we haven’t completely figured that part out yet,” Ianda admitted, “But this crate does have anti-tamper explosives,”
“We’re not blowing me up just to get me to Sickbay!” Travs snapped. Quietly. It wound up coming out as more of a hiss, actually.
Something tugged at the edge of Mayle’s mind. Something…something was supposed to be happening? Or not supposed to be happening? He let the thought go as another occured to him. He examined the damaged corner of the crate, then bent his knees and tried to life.
“This thing is HEAVY,” he said, “Travs, can you go Howler and help me lift this?”
“Why not use an antigrav?” Ianda asked.
“Because if I use an antigrav, I can’t drop it on her foot!” Mayle explained.
“Just a moment”, Travs closed her eyes and concentrated.
“Travs?” Mayle looked to her.
“Bayles?” Travs called to Bayles, “Get over here!”
“First I have to leave, then I have to stay,” Bayles was trying to sound good-natured, but she was clearly very worried, “What’s-“
“I can’t change,” Travs said, “What did you give me? Before I went to Sickbay, I couldn’t STOP from changing!”
Mayle’s eyes widened in realization. That’s what was missing! He’d been expecting Travs to go furry when she started getting anxious, but she hadn’t.
“We have to move. Now,” Bayles said. “Sickbay.”
“You don’t sound surprised,” Travs accused her, not bothering to keep her voice down now, “What did you DO?”
“Nothing!” Bayles hissed while Ianda tried to shush them, “Look, I’ll explain in Sickbay, but we need to fake an injury to get you there!”
“I’m not getting blown up,” Travs said again.
Mayle was suddenly seized with another idea. He made another show of lifting at the damaged corner of the crate, as if to right it. Then he let out a (he hoped) convincing cry of pain and fell to his side, clutching his back.
“AHHHHH!!!!” he wailed, “I think I slipped a disk!”
“Oh for,” Travs started to roll her eyes, but Bayles immediately had her medical tricorder aimed at him.
“Travs, take his right side, Ianda, take the left, let’s get this clutz to Sickbay,” she said, back to using her extra-loud, let’s-be-sure-the-audience-hears-us voice.
Then, under her breath, “Good idea. But you need to play it up. Wince with every left step.”
“Limp,” Travs muttered.
“Keep your lower spine steady,” Ianda added, “No, not like that, like it hurts to move it!’
“I’m a Cargo-master, I’ve seen more idiots hurt their backs trying to lift things than you can imagine!” Ianda whispered.
Supported by two of the women and trying to follow the stream of muttered acting instructions from all three, Mayle limped towards Sickbay.
They stepped out of the turbolift, just down the corridor from Sickbay.
“OK,” Bayles muttered, “This has to look innocent, so don’t turn on the jammer until Mayle is on the bio-bed!”
They entered Sickbay, which was empty. On a ship as small as the Farkas, night staff were generally only necessary when patients were in for observation. They positioned the still moaning Mayle on the main bio-bed, then Ianda reached into one pocket and gave a quiet countdown.
Mayles immediately jumped off the bio-bed, with Travs jumping on to replace him. Bayles rushed for a storage unit, popped it open and pulled out a small stasis unit.
“I’m not a doctor, but that just looks like a normal stasis unit,” Travs said, looking worried.
“Lieutenant Commander, I’m sorry, but whatever it is you’re carrying, it’s NOT a fetus!”
Travs was stunned. “What!?”
“It’s a…I don’t know, I just know it’s some sort of bio-engineered cellular mass,” Bayles hissed, “I only found out because Wolfman forgot to switch out the real scans for fake fetal scans in the nurses’ docket a few weeks ago,” Bayles said, trying to look conversational, “I tried to confront him, but he wouldn’t tell me anything. But he didn’t report me either. Then today he was so super-helpful about telling us the senior staff would be out of the picture tonight…look, we need to get this out of you!”
“I’m…not pregnant?” Travs was still stunned, “Was I…was I ever?”
“Probably not,” Bayles was prepping the stasis unit as she spoke, “I’m no doctor, but none of your readings were right for pregnancy. Wolfman just kept telling me it was due to ‘Howler factors impacting hormone levels’, but after I saw that scan…look, I don’t know why, but Wolfman was using you to grow something!”
“Why not use a lab?” Mayle asked.
“I don’t know, and we don’t have time for this now!” Bayles finished with the stasis unit, “Look, I can’t use the fetal transporter, it would leave a record. I’m going to have to make an incision!”
“Wolfman to Travs,”
The three conspirators exchanged a panicked look. Bayles fired up the bio-bed and activated the surgical frame, gesturing at Travs.
“Uh…Travs here?” she replied. Nothing happened. She tried to tap her comm-badge, but the surgical frame had immobilized her arms.
Mayle reached over and tapped the badge, barely visible above the frame.
“Thanks. Travs here,” she said.
“Lt Commander, I wanted to check in with you and your…situation,” Wolfman said pleasantly, “Have there been any more unexpected changes,”
“No, doctor, I’ve been fine,” Travs answered, hoping the comm-link wasn’t carrying the sound of Bayles slicing into her abdomen, “Mayle threw his back out, so I’m a bit preoccupied-“
Mayle quickly started gesturing ‘no’, but the damage was already done.
“Oh, how unfortunate,” Wolfman said, “I’ll meet you in Sickbay to take a look,”
“We’re already here!” Mayle called into the comm-badge, “It’s fine, Nurse Bayles is taking care of me,”
“Ah, good. I’ll just drop by to check her handiwork. Let me just finish my drink…I will be there in ten minutes. Wolfman out.”
“Shit!” Ianda squeaked, “Hurry!”
“I’m hurrying!” Bayles said. There was a wet, sucking sort of sound, then a plop. Looking over, Mayle could see that she’d just put a red, fleshy blob of flesh about the size of a ping-pong ball into a gel-filled packet. She closed the packet, then placed it in the stasis tube and hit the power control.
“I have to close up,” she said, tossing the small stasis unit to Mayle, grabbing a protoplaster and turning to the hole in Travs’ side, “Find somewhere to hide that!”
“WHERE AM I SUPPOSED TO HIDE A TUMOUR!” Mayles squeaked.
“I doesn’t matter! It just has to be in a stasis unit, and someplace no one will look for it!”
Mayle looked frantically around Sickbay, his gaze finally falling on another stasis unit, sitting on an out-of-the-way work surface.
“Any stasis unit?”
Dr. Wolfman walked into Sickbay, a pleasant expression on his face and the scent of strong ale on his breath. Mayle was on the main bio-bed, the surgical unit in the process of opening, the two halves sliding neatly around to their stored positions. One of the ensigns from one of the cargo bays was standing with a padd in hand and an annoyed expression on her face, while Lt Commander Travs was standing over Mayle, berating him.
“-told you a hundred times, lift with your knees, not with your back!” she finished, then turned to Wolfman, “Ah. Doctor. Finished with your lovely social evening already?”
“No, I’ll be heading back once I check up on the good Ensign here,” he pulled out a medical tricorder and made a show of running it over Mayle, though Bayles could see it wasn’t even turned on, “Very good, Nurse, you may go,”
With that, he turned to Travs. “I meant to tell you earlier, let’s have a follow-up in, oh, a week? Sooner if you have any more unexpected transformations,”
“Sure,” Travs said flatly.
“Excellent. Until then,” Wolfman turned, then left.
Mayles, Bayles, Travs and Ianda were quiet for a moment.
“Let’s get out of here,” Travs finally said.
The next day, Mayle was having lunch with Travs, Vanheath and Nacht in the Howler’s Den when Paulson, Syl and Porkchop walked in together, looking cheerful. Paulson was laughing at something Syl had just said, and as he watched Porkchop placed a hand on Syl’s back to guide him towards the replicator. If he hadn’t known the three of them were together, he would have written it off as a Howler social quirk…the ‘doggy cuddles’. But knowing what he did, yup, he could see that there was more than just platonic friendship there.
“Not pregnant,” Vanheath sighed for the tenth time. Travs and Mayle had just brought the two team leaders up to date on what had happened.
“You need to stop saying that,” Travs said, “At least for a couple of days…I think I know how Wolfman is going to play this with the senior staff.”
“I can’t believe Wolfman is one of the good guys,” Nacht said.
“That’s still up for debate,” Mayle said, “But yeah. Apparently. And there are more than just him,”
“Members of the Farkas crew are actually…on our side?” Vanheath shook his head, “I don’t know what’s harder to believe…that Wolfman is, or that there might be more,”
“There’s more,” Mayle said slowly, “But I…I don’t think this is the time or the place.”
Travs looked him right in the eye. He held her gaze for a few moments, hoping she’d get the hint. He needed to tell them about the Vilkas at some point, and about what had happened to that ship. Some things he knew, some things he only suspected. But now was not the time.
“Right,” Travs finally said. She started reaching for the surveillance scrambler in her pocket, “If that’s all…”
“Wait,” Nacht asked, “You never told us…what did you do with the, the thing? The tumour?”
Travs and Mayle exchanged a glance.
“It’s somewhere safe,” Mayle replied. He wasn’t going to give any more than that, not until they had a better idea of what that thing was, and why Wolfman had gone to such pains to create it.
In the meantime, hopefully nobody thought to open Felix the cat’s stasis tube.
One week later…
“Not pregnant,” Captain Harth said flatly. He did not look impressed.
“Well, not anymore,” Dr. Wolfman said, using what he hoped was the right combination of disappointment, regret and nervousness, “The fetus appears to have be resorbed. Not an uncommon occurrence, but very unfortunate in this case.”
“And there’s nothing that can be done at this pont?”
“Well, we could always collect semen from Lt Vanheath and attempt to impregnate her again, but that would be an ordinary human pregnancy,”
“Surely,” Commander Belis said coldly, “we haven’t reached the point where we would impregnate our people against their will.”
“No, of course not,” Harth sighed, “It’s just so unfortunate that we lost that opportunity. Very well, keep me apprised of her condition. Now, how have we progressed on rounding up those surveillance scramblers, Lt Morreth?”
Morreth swallowed. “We have accounted for all except eight,” he said in his nasal, not-very-Klingon voice, “We also found a vole nest on Deck Six. It’s likely some of the voles…swallowed a few,”
“That would certainly explain the sporadic outages we’ve been having,” Belis said, “But on an SI ship with a sensitive mission, we can’t afford ANY outages!” His voice had risen through the sentence until he was nearly yelling at Morreth.
“We’re tracking the voles,” Morreth squeaked, “Three are near the Howler’s Den, two more keep running around the Jefferies tubes on Deck Five.”
“See to it,” Harth said. “Now then, let’s begin discussing our next mission: There is a Nausican in the Alyxian Sector selling harvested organs…”