Author: Brendan Chris
“I’ve got them!” Mayle called from the small transporter control panel aboard the USS Farkas’ unnamed aeroshuttle as Travs and Vanheath materialized on the tiny pad. Actually, let’s name it. That will make this story easier. If runabouts are named after rivers, then aeroshuttles are named after…lakes? Because they don’t move as often as runabouts? OK. It’s the USS Lac-des-Loupes. Yes, it’s a real lake, in a real French-speaking part of the world that isn’t France. Or Belgium. Look, it’s in Quebec, OK?
“Go!” Morreth snapped at Syl, seated at helm, “Opposite direction the Vilkas went! Go go go!”
“Yes, I am going, I am going,” Syl brought up the warp drive, the stars in the cockpit windows elongating into starlines as the aeroshuttle…er…the Lac-des-Loupes shot off into warp and away from the USS Vilkas.
“Trimble, Packman, do you have that sensor-scrambler online yet?” Morreth demanded.
“No,” Packman called from the aft of the ship, “Those slavers did not use Starfleet standard connectors!”
“Hurry up,” Morreth said, “If the Vilkas manages to get back and track us, they’ll blow this little ship out of the water faster than a targ swallowing a vole!”
“I found another tracking device,” Crewman Vorns abruptly popped out of the head, “That’s three. Fancy tricorder of yours says there aren’t any more,”
“Keep looking,” Morreth ordered.
The aeroshuttle was basically an oversized captain’s yacht and a concession to the fact that the Intrepid-class ships had a single, tiny shuttlebay that was really good for nothing other than launching a couple small shuttlecraft. Runabouts were hit-or-miss…often literally, given the constrained space of the bay. So rather than a small captain’s yacht docked on the underside of the saucer, the Intrepid-class ships had a support craft slightly larger than a runabout. Like many compromises, it satisfied everyone but pleased no one. Practically speaking, the aeroshuttles on the Intrepid-class ships tended to be ignored, unused and generally forgotten about.
Which made the Lac-des-Loupes a perfect getaway vehicle for the Howlers. And as far as Travs was concerned, Morreth and Belis’ efforts to position the unnamed (and it’s staying unnamed) slaver ship as their obvious getaway vehicle was a giant reason to find an alternate escape plan…and to use the slaver ship as a distraction. They had no way of knowing that Harth’s superiors had another ship secretly lurking nearby, monitoring every move the Farkas made. They just knew that there would be a backup plan, and that they’d need every advantage. So Packman and Trimble had been sent to yank the sensor-jammer out of the slaver ship before sending it on its pre-programmed course away from the Farkas.
“Report,” Travs said, stepping over from the small transporter alcove.
“We’re at maximum warp…which isn’t that fast on this bucket,” Morreth reported, “Warp 5.5 and change. Starfleet specs say Warp 5, but SI seems to have upgraded this one…might make it to Warp 6 if we push it. All Howlers are accounted for. The Vilkas and the slaver ship are out of sensor range, but the slaver ship is no longer transmitting. We have a fix on the Farkas. She’s out of the dust envelope, and broadcasting at full power. No idea how long it will be before the Vilkas gets back, but for them to take any action against the Farkas at this point would be…high risk.”
“So the slaver ship has probably been destroyed. Do we know if anyone’s picked up either of the broadcasts?” Mayle asked.
“I’m monitoring Federation and Starfleet standard frequencies,” Paulson reported, “It’s been a while since I did a normal communications job…no reaction so far, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
“If the full story doesn’t get out, there’s nothing to stop the people behind this from disappearing both us and the crew of the Farkas,” Travs mused.
“And if we broadcast, the Vilkas will chase us down next and blast us to pieces,” Syl spoke up from the helm console. Next to him, Ensign Nacht was taking over the Ops panel.
“Even if we did make a clean getaway, we need to keep a low-profile,” Travs shook her head, then spoke slightly louder, “And a sensor-jamming system would really help!”
“We don’t need any unsubtle hints to tell us we must hurry up,” Packman called back.
“Teal, I found the ‘Conduit Adapters for Dummies’ write-up!” they heard Trimble say.
“So we need to find a lower-risk way to get the data out,” Mayle frowned, “And someplace to hide.”
“The Farkas has started transmitting a tactical feed!” Paulson interrupted.
The tiny tactical station started beeping. Vanheath jumped into the chair, stared for a moment at the unfamiliar controls, then started tapping.
“The Vilkas has intercepted the Farkas,” he reported, reading the incoming data, “We’re outside of sensor range, I can’t see anything that’s not on the feed. Looks like the Farkas managed to get her shields up.”
“Are we on the Farkas’ sensors?” Travs asked.
“No, and if they’re getting any tracking signals from this ship it’s not on their tactical overlay. But our warp trail sure is!” Vanheath replied, “The Vilkas is firing! I don’t know what they’re hitting them with, but the Farkas’ shields are down to fifty percent!”
“We need that jammer, guys!” Travs called again.
“We need you to stop interrupting us, ma’am!” came Packman’s answer.
“Owwww! Pay attention to what you’re doing!” they could hear Trimble scolding him.
Vanheath and Paulson both saw the feed from the Farkas dissolve briefly before returning.
“I think they’re targeting the Farkas’ subspace transceiver array,” Paulson said, “They want to shut them up,”
The feed showed the Vilkas unload another phaser barrage, this time when the feed dissolved into static it didn’t come back.
“They’ll be after us next,” Mayle said nervously.
“Should I prepare to transmit?” Paulson asked.
“No,” Travs said immediately, “The Farkas’ transmitter was far more powerful than whatever’s on this little thing. If no one heard them, there’s no way they’ll hear us. Maintain course. Nacht? Is there anywhere nearby we can hide?”
“The Badlands are about two hours away,” Nacht replied, having been looking around the local neighbourhood while the other discussions were happening, “No way we can get there before-“
“I have a warp signature at the extreme edge of our sensor range, due aft!” Vanheat interrupted, “Can’t tell yet, but probably about the right size for an Intrepid-class starship.
“Before that happens,” Nacht finished.
“How long until they overtake us?” Travs asked.
“They’re at warp…whoah! They just jumped to Warp 9.975, so I’d guess they just saw us! Um…interception in four minutes! Torpedo range in two!”
“I’d have to divert power from engines. This is a glorified captain’s yacht, not a fighter,”
“Do we have anyone with engineering training?” Morreth asked, “Someone who could…I don’t know…reverse polarize the tachyon replication?”
“We are the ones with engineering training,” Packman called up from the aft compartment.
“And that’s terrible techno-babble, sir,” Trimble added.
“Look, if you two paid half as much attention to your work as you did to eavesdropping, you’d be done by now!” Morreth snapped back.
Conversation dropped off, with Vanheath keeping an update on time to torpedo range while Trimble and Packman frantically worked in the aft section. The remainder of the Howlers were doing their best to stay out of the way of those who had actual tasks. Crewmen Johnson and Vorns had seated themselves at the small table next to the food replicator, while Ensign Porkchop had climbed into one of the narrow bunks. Mayle wasn’t really involved in the current situation, but for some reason was maintaining his position at the small transporter console.
“They’re in range!” Vanheath snapped, “They’ve fired one, two…three torpedos! They’re shooting to kill!”
“Packman!” Travs shouted.
“Syl, evasive! 000 mark 50, then drop us out of warp!”
“They’ll catch us!”
“Just do it!”
The aeroshuttle pulled up, making an abrupt courses change upwards before dropping out of warp.
“Full about, 180 mark 0!” Travs ordered, “Maximum warp!”
Syl obeyed, turning the little ship completely around before jumping back into warp.
If they’d been anything other than starships travelling at hundreds of times the speed of light, the manoeuvre would have been completely pointless. As it was, with the Vilkas travelling at Warp 9.975 and her torpedoes moving slightly faster, they flashed past the Lac-des-Loupes and halfway to the next star system before even realizing anything had happened. With the Lac-des-Loupes now travelling in the opposite direction at it’s slower (but still impressive) speed, the Vilkas was out of sensor range again before they were able to come about.
“Sensor-jammer is online,” Packman called.
“Set course to try to keep us out of their sensor range,” Travs didn’t even hesitate, “Periodic course changes to obscure our warp trail. Maximum warp.”
“The Vilkas is back within sensor range,” Vanheath reported, “They’re moving along our previous course.”
“Shut down non-essential systems,” Morreth ordered, “Get our emissions profile down. We don’t know what sort of sensors that ship has, or how well this jammer is going to work.”
It was slow going, even with Packman and Trimble now available to help. They were Starfleet officers, yes. But they’d spent anywhere from the past few months to two years focusing on their skills as a werewolf kill squad, of all things. Working the stations in the small cockpit and getting back into the ebb and flow of operating a starship were bringing those skills back, but they were definitely rusty.
“Any indication they’ve detected us?” Travs asked.
Vanheath tapped his panel, then put a tactical display on the cockpit window overlay. The Farkas was out of sensor range, assuming she hadn’t been destroyed, but her last known position was marked. A small icon represented their ship, moving quickly away from another icon representing the Vilkas. A projected course line showed the Vilkas’ heading, which was still following their old course directly opposite their escape from the Farkas.
“No sign they’re picking us up,” Vanheath reported, “But they’re going to find our warp trail soon.” The icon representing the Vilkas changed from solid to an outline. “We’re out of sensor range.”
“We need to get to the Badlands without them detecting us,” Travs mused, “We can’t keep playing cat and mouse,”
“Random course change,” Syl announced, “Well, it is not actually being that random, and am make trying get us close to the Badlands. But without looking like that is what I am doing.”
“Did everyone else forget that the Vilkas has a full-on cloaking device?” Morreth asked, “We saw them decloak. They could have cloaked and parked right on top of us already!”
“Do you know a way to detect them while cloaked from this little dingy?” Vanheath asked.
“Well…no,” Morreth admitted.
“Then shut up.”
“This thing is basically a runabout,” Mayle said thoughtfully, “Does it have microtorpedos? That we could set with proximity fuses?”
“Umm…” Vanheath checked, “Yes. Yes it does. With a combined yield that might, and I say might, leave a slight scorch mark on their hull.”
“But if they hit one, they might wonder what else we’ve dropped,” Mayle continued.
Travs thought for a few moments while her officers continued to pitch ideas. A thought occured, “Nacht, any inhabitable planets along our way?”
“Um…one marginally. Class-L, about half an hour away.”
“Packman, Trimble, is there anything we can do about our warp trail?”
“I found an article on ‘How to Obscure your Warp Trail and Escape your Parents’,” Trimble said, “But I don’t know if it’s reputable. It looks like it’s for teenagers trying to sneak away to concerts. Or for unsanctioned mating.”
“Try it,” Travs ordered, “Obscuring the warp trail, not the unsanctioned mating. Syl, get us there but keep changing course. Everyone else, grab a tricorder. I have an idea.”
“Party pooper,” Syl sighed.
Aboard the USS Vilkas, Captain Ast Kubari sat calmly in the captain’s chair, his black Section 31 uniform gleaming under the bridge lights.
“I thought our sensors were modified to see through the Farkas’ sensor-reflective shields,” he demanded.
“Whatever they’re using, it’s not Federation technology,” replied his Science Officer, “It’s not a cloaking device, but some sort of masking. We’re still picking up their warp trail, but it’s become…diffuse? I can’t get an exact courses, just a probability cone.”
“Which we can’t follow at anything above Warp 6,” the Tactical Officer growled, “Or we risk overshooting them,”
“Any sign they’re transmitting?” Kubari asked.
“No indications of any broadcasts.” the Operations Officer reported, “They might have a tight-beam transmission, but we wouldn’t know until whatever they were doing hit the normal communications networks.”
“And Section 31 is already at its limit trying to contain the damage from what the Farkas managed to transmit before we shut them down!” Kubari fumed, “Everyone on that damned ship is going to get a full mind-wipe!”
He stood from his chair, calm facade completely erased as he started pacing.
“We’re approaching the planet,” Syl announced, “Dropping out of warp,”
“No sign of the Vilkas,” Vanheath said, “But they might be cloaked.”
“No warp trails?” Morreth asked, “We can detect cloaked ships with warp trails, right?”
“That doesn’t do us any good inside the system,” Nacht cut in, “We might know they’re in the system, or roughly where they arrived. But most ships don’t go warping around inside solar systems.”
“Beam down the payload,” Travs ordered, “Get the planet between us and our arrival point, then put some distance between us at impulse.”
“Coming out of warp,” the Helm Officer reported as the Vilkas smoothly shifted to sub-luminal velocity, “No ships on scanners,”
“Life-signs on the planet!” Tactical snapped, “Twelve of them, but faint. It’s almost like they’re being masked!”
“I am picking up deposits of kelbonite,” the Science Officer added excitedly, “They may be trying to use them to hide!”
“Ready an away team,” Kubari ordered, “We have them!”
Near the edge of the system, the aeroshuttle drifted quietly, velocity matching a nearby asteroid. They were keeping the planet within the very edge of sensor range, watching to see what the Vilkas did.
“They’re beaming down!” Vanheath announced, “They took the bait!”
“How long do you think it’s going to take them to realize they’re chasing a dozen tricorders modified to emit life-signs?” Mayle asked Travs.
“We’re less than ninety minutes from the Badlands, and we’ve managed to put a bit of a break in our warp trail,” she replied, “So hopefully long enough.” She turned to the helm, “Syl, full impulse until we’re out of sensor range. Then maximum haul-ass to the Badlands!”
“Maximum ass-haul, yes ma’am!”
“We’re entering the outer edges of the plasma storms,” Nacht announced from Ops. Almost as one, the Howlers released breaths they didn’t realize they were holding and relaxed muscles they hadn’t realized were tensed. They were safe.
The ship rocked as a spiralling swirl of energized plasma brushed just a bit too close for comfort, Syl cursed and pulled the ship onto a new heading.
Ok, they weren’t exactly safe. But they were at least safe from the Vilkas, for now. The Badlands were a massive series of ‘energetic phenomena’ stretching across a vast expanse between Bajoran and Cardassian space. The dust clouds and plasma storms were serious navigation hazards; small ships could usually make their way through with minimal damage but anything larger than a small escort craft was usually too slow to dodge the plasma discharges. The Maquis rebel group had conducted strikes against the Cardassian Union for years out of bases hidden in the Badlands, using the plasma storms to escape Cardassian and Federation patrols. And the USS Voyager had been yanked halfway across the galaxy by an alien force while searching for a Maquis ship…although that intra-galactic relocation wasn’t actually a result of the Badlands themselves. In any case, the Howlers use of the Badlands as a hiding place was just the latest in an ongoing series of fugitives looking for a safe escape.
“Bring us on a lateral heading to our original course,” Travs ordered, “I want to be as far as possible from our warp trail before the Vilkas figures out where we went.”
“No promise,” Syl gulped, “You know I am not the pilot, yes?”
“Yeah, neither is anyone else,” Travs replied dryly, “But you’re the one who sat at the helm station.”
“Merde” Syl muttered, “Never volunteer,”
“Anything on the communications nets?” Mayle asked Pauslon.
The plasma storm is causing too much interference,” she replied, “We’re going to have to either move clear of the storms, or drop a comm-buoy if we want to interface with the nearest subspace relay and access the Federnet.”
“And we’re not doing that until we’ve found a safe place to stop for a while,” Travs said.
Morreth was stroking his somewhat patchy attempt at a beard, trying to look pensive as he gazed out at the colourful swirls of plasma outside the window, “Ensign Mayle, perhaps now would be a good time to review the data that Dr. Wolfman gave you.”
“Hmm? Oh!” Mayle remember the data chip copy in his pocket, “Right. Um, we have to do surgery on everyone.”
“Tabernac!” Syl cursed, spinning around in his chair, “First Wolfman, now you? Is this contagious?”
“Relax,” Paulson soothed her partner, then tapped her panel “Look, there’s an EMH on board. But also, WTF Greg? Surgery!?”
Mayle quickly explained the bio-engineered gland, the serum Wolfman had used to keep them from following in the footsteps of the Vilkas Howlers, and how implanting cells from the gland would cause their bodies to produce the serum naturally without having any impact on their ability to change.
“He said there was more,” Mayle said, plugging the chip into his console, “God, I hope they’re OK on the Farkas.”
“I don’t think the Vilkas was shooting to kill,” Vanheath spoke up, “Not at them, anyway.”
“Yeah, but we don’t know what they might do to the crew,” Travs expression tightened, “These are the people who authorized this whole mess, don’t forget.”
“So we’re still on a time limit,” Morreth nodded, “Good! Then today is still a good-“
His attempt to complete the Klingon catch-phrase in his nasal voice was quickly drowned out by the rest of the Howlers expressing that he should can it.
“We still have to put more distance between us and the Vilkas before we do anything,” Travs decided, “Sean, how far are we from the Bajoran Sector?”
“Ummm…” Nacht tapped at the Ops panel, “Ummm…carry the three, account for local subspace curvature…um…well, it’s not that close. But not that far? It’s like halfway around the Badlands. Shorter if we go straight through, but…well that’s a great way to explode. The edges of the storms are far safer.”
“Keep us going in that general direction,” Travs said, “Stick to the edges of the storms. Even better, see if you we can get far enough out to access communications without giving away our location.
“Any particular reason we’re going towards Bajor?” Vanheath asked.
“Not Bajor, specifically. It’s something Belis said,” Travs said, thinking back to their meeting in Harth’s ready room, “About how the Founders of the Dominion would react if they found out elements of Starfleet were experimenting on and trying to kill beings with the ability to change their shape. We might have to send a distress call through the wormhole,”
“Calling on the Dominion for help?” Morreth looked at her like she was insane.
“Not the Dominion, the Founders,” Travs amended, “The Changelings. One of the few races in the galaxy who can understand the position we’re in.”
Everyone become silent at that. Mayle went back to digging through Wolfman’s files. He found one labelled ‘Confession’ and decided that would be a good place to start. The other Howlers jumped and spun around as Wolfman’s image appeared on one of the side screens.
“I’m Dr. Brent Wolfman, USS Farkas, Starfleet Intelligence, service number 739-22-89G,” the recording began, “And if you’re seeing this, I’m either dead, had my memory erased, or just maybe found someone who might actually be able to get this into the right hands. Or you’re Section 31 and you’ve caught on to the fact that I’ve been working to undermine your little operation, in which case kindly go fuck yourself.”
“This is my full confession and record of my involvement in the Howlers Initiative,” the recording went on, “An attempt by first Starfleet Intelligence, then Section 31, to harness the victims of a mutagenic virus as a clandestine, extra-judicial assassination team. If you don’t know who Section 31 is, count yourself lucky and don’t try to find out. Just accept that SI is taking their marching orders from them, in this case.”
“Guys,” Travs called to the aft compartment as everyone’s jaws dropped, “You might want to come see this,”
Vanheath noticed Syl staring slack-jawed at the screen, a swirling plasma storm dead ahead.
“SYL!” he shouted. The French officer spun back to his panel, then pulled the ship away from the storm.
“Oopsies,” Syl said sheepishly.
“Let’s take this to the aft compartment,” Vanheath suggested, “Syl, Nacht, you guys can watch it later.”
“The original Howler virus was found on a Dominion courier ship that had been attacked by Orion pirates. It was reported to the Dominion that nothing had survived, but in truth the Starfleet ship that found it had several crewmen fall ill after being exposed to a broken sample container found in the cargo hold. After one of them suddenly gained the ability to change shape into a large, wolf-like creature, the captain submitted an urgent report to Starfleet. It was intercepted at the highest levels of Starfleet Intelligence, who took the entire crew into custody. I was the Chief Medical Officer of that crew. The ship that SI sent to detain us was the USS Vilkas.”
“We studied the virus for a few months, but couldn’t figure out a cure, or how it worked. That’s when SI brought in a team of specialists. Of course nobody knew it at the time, but a few of us eventually learned that this was the start of Section 31’s involvement. They had technology I’d never seen before, and I was eager to learn more about it.”
On the screen, Wolfman sighed.
“Perhaps too eager. I let their promises of great advances in bio-engineering and genetic regeneration blind me to their methods. That’s on me, and I accept the responsibility.”
“We were starting to have serious problems with the infected crew members, which we’d already nicknamed Howlers at that point. I don’t think I have to explain why. They were becoming increasingly aggressive, fighting mostly among themselves for dominance but also having steadily escalating encounters with the crew even while in human form. I’m still not entirely sure what the final trigger was, but things got worse and worse until one day the Howlers went berserk. Killed half the crew before SI and Section 31 were able to kill them. Traumatized the rest of us. Only one Howler survived, having been critically wounded by a falling support beam through his abdominal cavity. Uh, for the record that was Ensign Gregory Mayle.”
Everyone turned to stare at Mayle, who was still staring raptly at the screen.
“Section 31 ordered his memory erased and had him placed in stasis while they continued their studies. They eventually determined the overall cause of the aggressive behaviour, certain hormonal build-ups and neurological…”
Wolfman went on for some time, detailing how they’d discovered the means to produce the serum that would in theory keep the Howlers more amicable, increasing their social dependence on each other, leading to the proposal to pair that with hypno-conditioning, and finally the launch of the Howlers Initiative and the USS Farkas’ mission.
“I don’t know who had the bright idea, but apparently one of the higher-ups thought that if we had a way to channel the Howler’s aggression, maybe they’d be easier to control. That’s where the idea to use them to target criminals who were otherwise untouchable by the Federation justice system came in. And to be fair, they weren’t wrong. Things looked promising, the new Howlers weren’t anywhere near as aggressive as the old ones, unless they were on a mission.”
“It was when I learned that they had been deliberately exposing unknowing officers to the virus that I started seriously questioning my role in this,” Wolfman paused, looking down at his desk, “They wanted people who wouldn’t be too difficult to disappear if thing went south, but no one already associated with SI or Section 31.” He looked back up, “Contriving elaborate scenarios to infect their chosen targets. Patting themselves on the back when the victims blamed their new status on animal attacks or freak occurrences. Sound familiar?”
“And then there was still what was becoming dangerous levels of tension between them and the crew. Who could blame them? Half of them had survived the Vilkas massacre, and the rest didn’t need a reason to be terrified of a squad of killing machines. So the higher-ups decided we needed a middle-man. Someone with a foot in both worlds.”
“This is when they had me remove Mayle from stasis, modifying his memories and deliberately keeping him in the dark about what had happened to him. Making up a bullshit story about how he got there, keeping his viral load suppressed too low to change and fully become part of the pack, forcing him to be the outsider by keeping his past tightly classified, use of psychological manipulation…” he shook his head, “Well, when Commander Belis suggested that we needed to start thinking about a way to get the Howlers out from under Section 31’s nose, I didn’t take much convincing.”
Wolfman abruptly straightened, composed himself and stared right into the camera.
“None of this excuses what I have done, both on orders from my superiors as part of the Howlers Initiative, but also of my own volition in an effort to position them for escape. And…and to make sure I was above suspicion in the eyes of Section 31. I deliberately subjected them to unnecessary experiments and medical procedures in order to keep Section 31 convinced of my disdain for the Howlers and my loyalty to their organization. Though I attempted to be as humane as possible in my means, this does not change the fact that my actions constitute gross violations of Interstellar and Federation Law.”
“I…” Wolfman swallowed, “I can only hope that my actions served the greater good. If everything goes according to plan, the Howlers are now in the proper care of Starfleet Medical, and you’ll be watching this recording at my public court-martial. Perhaps…perhaps one day I might be able to beg them for their forgiveness. A full accounting of my crimes is as follows:”
Mayle turned off the recording.
“I think I’ll read the transcript for the rest,” Mayle said through dry lips.
Things were quiet aboard the Lac-des-Loupes for the next few hours. Mayle decided he’d take a turn piloting the small craft while Syl and Nacht took a turn viewing Wolfman’s confession. The loud, French expletives that erupted from the aft compartment for some time after suggested that Wolfman was not likely to find forgiveness from Syl anytime soon.
After a couple of initial close calls, Mayle found his Academy basic piloting training coming back to him. And navigating the plasma storms and particle currents wasn’t all that different from avoiding rocks and rapids while kayaking…except the rocks usually didn’t move around quite as much.
He found himself thinking of Carolyn Bayles and their quasi, maybe, sort-of romance. With the revelation that Wolfman had been conspiring with Belis to free the Howlers, he wondered how much Bayles had known. And when. She’d known about the bio-engineered gland, but only after it had been removed. Before that, she’d known something was strange, but not what. When had Wolfman taken her into his confidence? She’d known about the Vilkas. May have even served on the Vilks before the incident. Had she known Mayle before he’d had his memory erased? Were they involved before he’d had his memory erased? Could that explain why it always felt like she was keeping him at arms length…or had she even done so? Was he now imagining she’d kept him at arms length to try to justify…what?
“Hey,” Ensign Paulson stepped through the hatch from the aft compartment, “Do you want a hand?”
“Sure,” Mayle gestured at the empty Ops console, realizing that his mind had been spinning over the same thoughts for longer than he’d realized, “It’s not so bad, though. No sign of pursuit, and the plasma storms are…one second,” Mayle quickly course-corrected around a tornado-like spiral of energetic plasma, “Well, that one would have torn us to pieces, but they’re not that hard to avoid.”
“OK,” Paulson dropped into the Ops chair, “Half the guys fell asleep after Syl finished his outburst,” she said, “Adrenaline crash, I think,”
“It’s been a busy day,” Mayle snorted, “I don’t blame them. I’m jealous, actually. I can’t imagine how I’m going to fall asleep.”
“Maybe the EMH can give you something after he’s done implanting the glands,” Paulson suggested.
“Oh good, that’s happening? Wolfman and Bayles said it was very important,”
“He’s taking as many pieces from Morreth as he can, but he says he’ll need you to donate some, too.”
They tapped at their consoles for a few minutes.
“I guess we know now why half the Farkas crew were so hostile towards the How…towards us,” Mayle said bitterly, “They survived the slaughter on the Vilkas, only to end up babysitting version 2.0 of whatever killed their friends,”
“Greg,” Seeta swallowed, “You know…we know how hard you worked to make things better for us after you arrived. After they took you out of stasis? Wow, did we even stop at DS9 to pick you up, or was that just another lie? Man, this is messed up,”
“Sure,” Mayle snapped, “Working hard to make friends, trying to understand why Starfleet officers who swore an oath to uphold Federation values would be treating their own as monsters because they’d suffered an accidental infection. Gee, it sure would have helped to know that it wasn’t you they were terrified of. I was the one who’d gone insane and killed God-knows how many people!!??”
“It was us they were terrified of,” Pauslson shook her head, “It means every time they saw us change, every criminal they saw us take down, it probably took them right back to that day on the Vilkas. Only it was them running, hiding or dying.”
“It just…it explains so much,” Mayle sighed and looked down at his hands “I don’t know if I should be angry or grateful I can’t remember what I did.”
“You heard Wolfman,” Paulson tried to reassure him, “Neurochemical…hormonal whatever. You couldn’t have stopped it.”
“No. But how do I come to peace with it, if I can’t remember it?”
They were quiet for a few minutes.
“I’ve starting thinking more about the people I’ve killed,” Paulson confided, “I think some of the others have, too. I think whatever conditioning they gave us was suppressing our guilt, too. Or stopping us from dwelling on it. The same way it stopped us from dwelling on our families.”
“I’m sorry,” Mayle said softly, “I didn’t even think about that. I was so wrapped up in one event I can’t even remember, I forgot that you guys…” ‘Killed far more people than I ever did’ is how he was going to end that sentence, but he zipped his lip before the words could get out. Travs, Morreth, Vanheath, Paulson and all the other Howlers had been horribly used and exploited. It wasn’t only the criminals they’d been sent after who had died, it was their guards, co-conspirators, people who may or may not have been criminals but happened to be too close to the target when the Howlers stormed in with teeth and claws. And a lot of collateral damage in the form of innocent wildlife who’d succumbed to some of the Howlers more blood-thirsty instincts.
“Yeah,” Paulson swallowed, “I know it’s hitting Syl and Porkchop hard. You…you remember Porkchop has a habit of eating what he kills,”
“Oh boy,” Mayles eyes widened, “And everything is recorded. Every kill.”
“Even the smaller stuff,” Paulson went on, “The stuff that’s…humiliating. It’s all recorded, either on the Farkas surveillance records or from mission logs. Travs and Vanheath’s uncontrolled mating. The dog-walker routine on the holodeck.”
“So many trees humped,” Mayle tried to smile, but it just wasn’t there.
“We’re going to need so much therapy,” Paulson groaned.
“Yes,” Mayle agreed, “Yes we are.”
The converstion shifted to idle chit-chat, just an effort to pass time. After a couple of hours there was a footstep at the aft hatch.
“Hey,” Vanheath yawned a bit, “Mayle, holo-doc needs you for a minute. Then your turns for quick naps,” he said to them.
“I don’t think I can sleep,” Mayle shook his head.
“Yeah, ok, but we’re not letting the two people who are the most exhausted fly the ship when our lives depend on you not crashing into rapidly moving spirals of supercharged plasma,” Vanheath smiled grimly.
“Right. OK.” Mayle surrendered the conn and followed Paulson to the aft compartment. The table had been folded down and Syl and Porkchop were curled up on the resulting bed. Morreth and Travs were in the two narrow bunks to port, while the rest of the team had dug out some bedrolls and setup on the deck.
It only took a moment for the holographic doctor to extract part of the gland that was apparently developing with impressive speed, according to the doc. Then Mayle started looking around for a place to crash.
“Why don’t you join us,” Paulson invited him, moving to lay down next to Syl.
“Thanks, but I’m not looking to be boyfriend number three,” Mayle gave a half-grin.
“Don’t be silly, two is enough,” Paulson replied back, “But maybe having a warm body nearby will help you sleep,”
Mayle shrugged, but curled up next to her. With the number of times he’d woken up to find one of the Howlers curled up at the foot of his bed, it wasn’t exactly a new experience.
In less than a minute, he was out like a light.
“We can’t connect to any official Starfleet channels, telemetry or feeds,” Packman insisted, “They’ll see that the authentication codes come from the Lac-des-Loupes, and at the very least they’ll know we’re still out here. If they trace which comms relay we’re connecting to, which transmitter array, signal power levels…they can get our rough position!”
“You’re still carrying the ‘Subspace Emissions Warfare for Dummies’ book,” Lt Commander Travs pointed out dryly, gesturing for the padd in Packman’s hand.
“Well…yeah. I’m still using it!”
“Is there anything in there about masking the authentication codes?” Travs asked.
“Well…no,” Packman admitted, “I’m sure it’s possible. We just don’t know how.”
It had been half a day since they’d escaped the USS Vilkas. Enough time for everyone to have a short rest, Mayle to extricate himself from where he’d somehow wound up sleeping underneath Syl and Paulson, and for their stolen ship to skirt the edges of the Badlands and get within range of the Bajoran Sector communications relay.
“Do they still have the Defiant at Deep Space Nine now that the war is over?” Vorns wondered, “I’ve never seen a Defiant-class ship in action,”
“If we see one in action today, it’ll probably be trying to blast us to pieces,” Morreth said, “But what a glorious way to die!”
“The Defiant isn’t Starfleet Intelligence, or Section 31. Whatever that is,” Vanheath said, “Maybe they won’t shoot on sight.”
“Maybe we don’t risk it,” Travs said, “You said we can’t use official channels. What about Federnet?”
“Well,” Paulson started to say, but Trimble cut her off. Paulson crossed her arms and leaned back.
“It’s the same technology,” he said.
“But would it alert Starfleet the same way?”
Packman and Trimble huddled for a minute. After some whispered conference, they turned back.
“They could still trace us,” Packman said.
Paulson rolled her eyes and snorted.
“Seeta?” Travs asked.
“If these two are done mansplaining, may I remind you my first posting was at a communications centre?” she asked.
“I’d totally forgotten,” Travs admitted, “So…are they wrong?”
“No, they’re not wrong,” Travs admitted, “But they missed a key piece of policy: Starfleet and SI can do traces on the public Federnet. Practically speaking though, it’s a far slower process. Official Starfleet channels are limited to Starfleet ships, stations and outposts, so it’s easy to know exactly who should be using them. The Federnet is public access, so the sheer volume of traffic is exponentially higher. And since Starfleet doesn’t own it, they have to go through the Federation bureaucracy to actually get a trace authorized. That’s assuming they even know what they’re looking for…that’s the part that’ll work in our favour.”
“I have the impression that whoever authorized the Howlers Initiative doesn’t care much about doing things legally,” Vanheath said.
“We’d still have a lot more time,” Travs said, “Especially if we start only monitoring one-way broadcasts. News networks. Entertainment channels.”
“Entertainment channels,” something started tickling the back of Paulson’s mind. Before she could dwell on it, Travs was barking orders.
“Launch the comm-buoy,” she said, “Paulson, start with a one-way link. Let’s see if there’s any mention of us or the Farkas on the news nets. Alpha Team, Beta Team, start brainstorming. We need a way to get the Howlers data out to enough people that SI and these Section 31 people can’t cover it up.”
“I’ve got something,” Paulson announced loudly, “Here! An article from Associated Worlds Network on a Starfleet ship being quarantined at Starbase 375! They don’t mention the name of the ship, but they speculate it’s the same vessel that sent a garbled distress signal several hours ago!”
“Is there any imagery?” Travs asked
“Not in the news article,” Paulson replied, “Let me check social channels,”
While she was working, Vanheath pulled up the same article. “It says the ship is refusing to allow anybody on board due to ‘dangerous viral contamination’, and they’re insisting that the station enforce quarantine. The USS Medusa had been sent in to assist, but the station commander has demanded that Starfleet recall them,”
“Here,” Pauslon said, “A holo from someone on a passing freighter. I can’t make out the name or registry, but it’s definitely an Intrepid-class ship.”
“I get the impression Commander Belis is trying to buy time.” Lt Commander Travs grimaced, “But it won’t take long for SI to overrule the local station commander. Hell, they may have done it already. Nacht, Vanheath, what have you come up with?”
“Public broadcast,” Vanheath said.
“Upload to data repository,” Nacht said at exactly the same time.
Travs looked back and forth for a moment, then pointed at Nacht.
“We upload the whole data package to a public repository on the Federnet,” Nacht said, “Starting with the high-priority files and logs. SI might get it taken down, but until they do the entire Federation can see it.”
Vanheath waited until Travs pointed at him.
“Sure,” he said, “Assuming anyone actually finds it before SI sees it and takes it down. Public broadcast. Send it to as many receivers as possible.
“Nobody’s going to pay attention to a random broadcast!” Paulson didn’t wait for Travs to point back to Beta team, “We do a broadcast, it’s transient. And gone. Wait…hold on, something’s on the tip of my tongue.”
“But a lot harder for SI to stop!” Packman didn’t seem interested in waiting either, not for Paulson, Travs or his team leader to say anything.
“Either way, we’re assuming the Vilkas doesn’t track us down, find us, and either blow us up or jam us,” Travs took control of the conversation again, pointing at Nacht.
“With a data repository, it’ll take them too long to figure out the source to come after us in time,” Nacht said.
“We should have a presentation slide or doodle board with pros and cons,” Mayle whispered to Morreth. The pale Klingon nodded and moved off, presumably in search of 24th-Century whiteboard markers.
“A live broadcast,” Vanheath trailed off when Travs shot him a dark look. Then she pointed at him. “A live broadcast is, well, live,” he continued, “If the Vilkas starts chasing us, we broadcast that.”
“Unless they jam us!”
“I have located a doodle board for pros and cons,” Morreth announced proudly as he returned to the cabin, “Today is a good day to brainstorm!”
“Please, somebody kill him,” Nacht muttered.
“I’d like to see you try!” Morreth sneered, “With an actual weapon, not a +2 Mace of Exposition!”
“THAT’S IT!” Paulson exclaimed.
“What is, Nacht’s +2 Mace of Exposition?” Travs looked confused.
“What? No. I was ignoring those two idiots,” Paulson grabbed a stylus from Morreth and started sketching on the board, “Look, we upload the key data to a public repository. We ready a tactical feed, in case the Vilkas comes after us. And then we start a live broadcast to a channel we know is going to have a broad, attentive audience!”
“What’s the catch?” Travs asked slowly.
“Well,” Paulson said, “We have to get past the call-screener,”
USS Silverado, NCC-135060, Federation Ambassador-class Starship
Somewhere in Federation space…
“You’ve reached Bartholomew Gibson, screener for the, like, totally great Dr. Vonna. You tell me your problem, I’ll tell you if it’s interesting enough for air time, OK?
There were many things that made Silverado different from other Federation starships of the time. Most of them are completely unrelated to the Howlers and their misadventures, but deep in the saucer section of the large ship a portion of living space next to the office of the Ship’s Counselor had been reconfigured into a compact but sophisticated broadcast studio. Sitting comfortably in a large, padded chair was the one, the only, the incredible Dr. Vonna, AKA Counselor Eva Yvonnokoff, star of The Vonna Show, only on the Associated Worlds Network! Frustrated that none of the Silverado crew seemed interested in taking advantage of her services, she’d struck a deal with AWN to do a counselling talk-show, of sorts. The weirdest thing about the idea was that it had turned out to be wildly successful. The holographic background behind her was currently showing a recreation of an inviting living room, complete with gorgeous mountain scenery visible outside a picture window, with a cozy wood stove burning in the corner.
In the second part of the studio, in a control booth separated from Vonna by a sound-proof (and separately ventilated for reasons again not relevant to the Howlers) divider sat Crewman Bart Gibson: assistant, call-screener, gopher and general slave to Yvonnokoff. Most of his time during the show was spent explaining to people why they weren’t interesting enough to have their problems broadcast to half the quadrant, and today was no exception. Dozens of blinking lights indicated callers waiting to speak to him, and those were only the ones who made it through the automatic screening system!
Gibson tapped a button, bringing up the caller that the auto-screener had identified as most promising.
“Greetings, Warrior of Vonna,” a gruff, female voice spoke, “My mate and I-“
“Inter-species Klingon/human relationship?” Gibson cut her off.
“Mmkay. Uh, could you call back in two weeks? We’re doing a special on inter-species sex problems, and even if your problem isn’t sex, you’ll probably get a more interested audience. And a totally more interested Vonna.”
“Very well. You will connect us to Vonna in two weeks, or I shall bring you to a dishonourable death.”
“Cheers, boo,” Gibson closed the channel, “OK, next?”
“Greetings,” this voice was umistakable Vulcan, “I wish to debate Vonna on the merits of-“
“I’m going to stop you right there, monkey,” Gibson said, “Vonna’s already debating a Vulcan right now, and from the twitchy vein on her forehead, she’s not going to be in the mood for another. Try another day,”
“Most illogical-“ the voice cut off as he closed the line.
“It’s just the same old same-old day after day with this,” Gibson pulled open the drawer containing his special, non-replicated cannabis-infused edibles, selected a candy and popped it in his mouth, “I need to ask for reassignment, I didn’t join Starfleet to be a glorified secretary,”
“OK boo, or babe,” he pulled up the next caller, sipping some water to wash down the sugary treat, “Hit me. Whatcha got?”
“Right, hi. Look, whatever you do, don’t cut us off. This is super important,” a rushed, somewhat intense female voice spoke.
“All of Dr. Vonna’s callers are important,” Gibson said, with the drone of one reading from a scripted manual, “Please…hic…please tell me about your particular, special problem.”
“We’re a group of Starfleet officers who have been forcefully infected with a shape-shifting virus and exploited as an extra-judicial killing squad. Starfleet Intelligence is trying to track us down right now, and if they catch us before you get the word out, we’re all going to disappear,”
“She means they’re going to lock us up, dissect us, and kill us!” another voice jumped in, “Come on, Lt Commander, we gotta be direct here!”
Gibson frowned, looked down at his candy drawer, then back at his console.
“Who is this? Did Seth put you up to this??”
“I don’t know who that is,” the first voice replied, “But I’m serious when I say we’re all going to die horribly if you don’t let us through!”
“Babe, do you know how many times a day I hear that?” Gibson chuckled.
“Your argument is flawed,” the crisp Vulcan voice said in that infuriatingly superior tone Vulcans just loved to use, “You have failed to properly apply the Peterson Theorum to the behavioural analysis of-“
“Ze so-called ‘Doctor’ Peterson vas found to be crackpot und his vork disproved,” Counselor Eva Yvonnokoff, AKA Dr. Vonna, spoke crisply from her chair. Her caller, a stoic Vulcan, was displayed on a floating holographic screen visible to both her and her audience, “I am zurprised Vulcan Science Academy vould use his vork,”
“Never the less,” the Vulcan said, “In this case, it must be considered that in a given segment of the population,”
“But nozing,” Vonna cut him off, “Ve vill not legitimize such tings on my show. Vonna out,” she slammed a hand down on a button built into her chair and the Vulcan disappeared, “Bart, who is next caller?”
“Gibson!” Vonna shouted, “Ve haff dead air! You know how I feel about dead air!”
“Right, um, sorry,” Gibson’s voice came back, “So, I have a group of Starfleet officers on the line claiming that Starfleet Intelligence is going to kill them all horribly if they get caught before the call is done. Or a guy from Ottawa who’s experiencing Imposter Syndrome at work.”
Vonna thought for a moment, “Did ze group of officers say why zey vould be kilt?” she asked.
“Something about being turned into werewolves and being forced to eat criminals. I dunno. I think my edible just kicked in.”
“How many times have I zaid do not say such things on air!” Vonna carefully adjusted her hair bun, “Now I must write report. Apologies, audience. Ok. Und imposter-person, does he haff interesting schtick? Perhaps repressed sexual desires for…vhat is new…clowns?
“Uh…not that he mentioned.”
“Very vell, zis verevolf delusion is most interesting, have not heard before! Gibson! Put zem trough!”
Back near the Badlands…
“Zis is Dr. Vonna, please turn on your camera for viewing,” came the crisp, cool voice, “Let us discuss delusion of shape-change, yas?”
“Camera Syl, turn on the camera!” Pauslson hissed.
“That’s it,” Mayle gulped as Syl’s panel beeped, looking around nervously, “We’re on the air. All over the Federation.
“Dr. Vonna,” Travs stood and moved forward to be sure there was no doubt who was speaking, “I’m Lieutenant Commander Alice Travs. I’ve been listed as ‘missing’ for two years, but in truth I’ve been on classified assignment to the USS Farkas. Right now I’m the commander of an extra-judicial kill-squad code-named Howlers. This is Lt Morreth, my second in command. Team leaders Lt Jacob Vanheath and Ensign Sean Nacht. I’m broadcasting our current location and tactical feed, all records related to us and the Howlers, along with the location of a data repository holding all of this proof, in case we’re intercepted or jammed before-“
“Hmm, jas,” Vonna inturrupted, “Let us talk of zis fear of discovery. Chust who do you tink is chasing you?”
“USS Vilkas, another Starfleet Intelligence vessel, falsely listed as destroyed,” Mayle cut in, “Oh, and I’m Ensign Greg Mayle, one of the first officers infected. I was part of an early Howlers experiment that failed when we…um…went crazy and …killed everybody…”
“Maybe you should have left that part out,” Nacht said dryly.
In the control room, Gibson watched as Vonna rolled her eyes and prepared to rip apart the ridiculous story she was being told. Out of curiosity, he opened up the data feeds coming from the caller. He noted the data repository location, but started poking at the hundreds of files the caller was trying to send him. He opened up one of the files at random, read a few lines, checked whether the authentication signature cleared the ship’s computer. It did. Then he checked another file. And another.
Aboard the Lac-des-Loupes, the team was getting even more tense.
“No, you don’t understand,” Travs was saying, “The Vilkas was never destroyed, they just took it quietly out of the picture so it could track the Farkas without anyone knowing!”
“Delusions of persecution quite common,” Vonna said her voice practically dripping with disdain, “I vould recommend-“
“Uh…Vonna?” Gibson broke in.
“Vhat? I said not to interrupt vhen-“
“I think these guys are legit,” Gibson said, “I mean, you should look at what they’re sending!”
Looking skeptical, Vonna picked up her padd and started tapping. Tapped some more. Frowned, muttered a bit.
Everyone on the Lac-des-Loupes held their breath.
“Vell,” Vonna tapped a button and the relaxing living room behind her vanished, replaced with dozens of floating displays, some showing medical records, others showing mission recordings. Yet more showed log entries, interview transcripts, and live sensor footage from the Lac-des-Loupes.
She turned back to the camera, an almost predatory expression on her face.
“So delightful to meet you, my little ratings bonanzas,” Vonna almost purred, “Please, make selves comfortable, zis vill be a long talk,”
“We’ll tell you everything,” Travs said, keeping one eye on the sensor display, “But the Vilkas…first, we need you to rebroadcast everything we’ve sent. That’s the only way SI won’t just try to vanish us and cover everything up. Do that, and we’ll tell you everything.”
“If vhat you zay is true, why are none of you-“
Vonna trailed off as Syl, Nacht, Vanheath and Morreth all abruptly started to change. Fur rippled across their bodies as muscles bunched, stretched and slid across their growing bones. The snaps of knees abruptly reversing direction rang briefly through the cockpit like popcorn. In seconds, half the Howlers had changed to their Howler form.
“Very vell,” Vonna said, her mouth suddenly very dry, “Gibson. Rebroadcast all. Including data site. Und vhen done, get on line vit AWN about time extension. Ve may haff to pre-empt ze news.”
“And done,” Gibson said a moment later, “I’ll get on the line with AWN,”
As the others returned back to human form, Travs looked over to Paulson, who was browsing the Federnet.
“There it is,” she said, “‘Howlers’, ‘Farkas’ and ‘Vilkas’ all just spiked on social media tracking. There are already a thousand downloads of our data repository complete, with another twelve…twenty-eight, fourty-seven, well, there are tens of thousands of downloads in progress.”
“Vill make difficult to cover up, I promise,” Vonna said.
“OK, Vonna,” Travs said, “Where do you want to start?”
USS Silverado Bridge, Alpha/Beta Shift Handover
“Keep it under Warp Six until Vonna finishes her damned show,” Captain Christopher Stafford was saying to Lt Commander Quintaine as the latter took the conn for the evening shift, “Last time, AWN was sending legal notices about ‘unwarranted subspace interference’.”
“Speaking of,” Commander San Jall and his replacement were watching the main screen, which had been setup to display The Vonna Show in preparation for Beta Shift’s very boring shift, “Why does she look like she’s in the middle of a command centre instead of a counselor’s office? And why is she talking to like a dozen Starfleet officers?”
“Good questions,” Stafford asked, feeling a sudden sense of foreboding, “Sylvia, audio please,”
“Fascinating,” Vonna was saying, “Und Starfleet Intelligence does not know vhere virus came from?”
“It was a crashed Dominion courier,” a pale man with slightly ginger-ish hair was saying, “No idea why it was there, why they had it, if it was a weapon or what. Oh, and…um…I want to say hi to my sister and my family. I guess I’ve been listed as either dead or MIA for at least three years now. I don’t exactly know how long because they erased my memory after the first incident. So…I’m sorry. I hope I’ll see you all soon.”
Stafford and Jall slowly sank back into their seats as every detail of the Howlers Initiative was exposed, broadcast, rebroadcast, and backed with incontrovertible proof.
“Did Vonna just blow a Starfleet Intelligence Black Op wide open? Stafford asked slowly.
“Vonna just blew a Starfleet Intelligence Black Op wide open,” Jall confirmed, “And there is no way in hell this Pandora’s Box is closing again,”
“We could cut her broadcast,” Lt Commander T’Parief grumbled from Tactical.
“Nooo, this is already exploding onto other news channels,” Jall said quickly, tapping through various news feeds, “And if Vonna blew this thing wide open, that means we blew this thing wide open. Do you want to be on the side of the whistle-blower, or the cover-up?”
“Given what we’ve already heard? Keep broadcasting,” Stafford ordered, “And let me know when Admiral Tunney calls in a rage.” He turned to Jall. “Drink? I think we’re about to have a very busy few weeks.”
“And I think we don’t want to be sober when Admiral Tunney calls,” Jall agreed.
“Right,” Travs was explaining to Vonna about how she’d joined the Howlers, “They told me I was the first one. I only learned about the Vilkas and the early experiments…gods…yesterday?”
“Fascinating,” Vonna replied, “Oh, qvestion from audience: Did-“
“Guys,” Vanheath called out, “Um…I’m getting some weird readings from the Badlands. There’s a pressure wave building, but nothing on the sensors to account for it,”
“Cloaked ship?” Travs demanded, turning away from the camera.
“Maybe?” Nacht was now leaning over Vanheath’s shoulder, “It’s moving in our general direction, and it’s about the right size for an Intrepid-class ship,”
“OK Vonna,” Travs turned back to the camera, “Time to find out just how good an insurance policy you are,”
Vonna brought one hand up to her earpiece, “Von moment.” She listened for a moment, then refocused her attention on Travs, “Deep Space Nine. Go. Now. Talk more vhen-“
“Ship decloaking!” Vanheath snapped, “It’s the Vilkas!”
“Deep Space Nine, Syl, maximum warp!” Travs barked, “ Paulson, get a distress call going,”
They were all sent grabbing for supports as Sly spun the small craft around and hammered his hand down on the warp drive controls.
“I’ve lost the feed to AWN!” Paulson called, “Vilkas is trying to jam us!”
“Forget it,” Morreth advised, “Pump all our transmission bandwidth into a distress call,”
“Vilkas is in pursuit! They’re firing torpedoes!” Vanheath announced.
“One torpedo,” Nacht immediately corrected, “And they’ve matched our speed this time. They won’t fall for the same trick as before,”
“Full shields, stay on course,” Travs said, “Time to DS9?”
“Fifty-four minutes,” Sly said.
“Too long, far too long!” Mayle groaned.
“Torpedo impact!” Vanheath managed to warn right before the Lac-des-Loupes bucked like a stung horse. Most of the Howlers managed to grab on to something, but Nacht was thrown across the cockpit, hitting the opposite wall and going down in a heap.
“Shields down to fifty percent!” Vanheath called as Morreth leapt to Nacht’s side, arm reaching blindly under the console for the emergency medkit.
“Warp drive is offline,” Syl announced, “Impulse is sluggish. I am trying to keep us on course,”
There was a flash outside the cockpit windows as the Vilkas dropped out of warp, bearing directly down on the small ship.
“Trimble, Packman, see if you can get warp drive back up,” Travs ordered, massaging her arm where she’d stumbled against the console.
The ship shook again as a shimmery blue tractor beam speared out from the larger ship, locking firmly onto the aeroshuttle.
“We could take them,” Morreth said calmly as he finished applying a field dressing to Nacht’s head and helped the smaller man sit comfortably against the aft wall, “Beam aboard. Full Howler. Either take that ship, or steal their aeroshuttle and escape again.”
“They killed all but one of us the last time there was a Howler attack on the Vilkas,” Mayle reminded them angrily, “And they’ve been following you, I mean us, for two years. They’re ready for you. You won’t last two minutes,”
“They’re locking phasers!” Vanheath warned.
“They’ll take down our shields and beam us out,” Morreth said, voice flat, “Then we disappear.”
“Divert all power to shields!” Travs ordered, just before the ship shook.
“Shields at ten percent!”
“Another ship is dropping out of warp!” Vanheath called, “It’s the Defiant!”
The compact, aggressive form of the Federation’s only class of warship shot out of warp in a bright flash of pseudo-motion and bore straight down on the Lac-des-Loupes. The Howlers movement inside the small ship was frantic, Trimble and Packman trying in vain to get warp drive online. Vanheath announcing intense sensor sweeps, full shields and armed weapons from both larger starships. Paulson trying to establish communications, only to be blocked by the Vilkas.
The Defiant abruptly fired her impulse engines and shot into the space between the two ships just as the Vilkas fired another shot. The phaser blast hit the Defiant’s shields, and apparently that was enough to royally piss-off whoever was in command. The Defiant abruptly came to a stop, shielding the Lac-des-Loupes with its heavily armoured bulk and blocking the tractor beam.
“The Defiant has locked phasers on the Vilkas,” Vanheath said.
“Incoming transmission!” Paulson said. She didn’t even wait for the order to open the channel.
“This is Starfleet Intelligence vessel Vilkas,” a crisp voice came over the channel, but no image accompanied it, “Authentication sequence tango, epsilon, theta alpha four. Defiant, you are interfering in a highly classified Starfleet Intelligence operation. Stand down at once and allow us to take these criminals into custody.”
“Vilkas, this is Defiant,” the answering voice was sharp and curt, “Your classified operation has been broadcast to most of the Federation. And we just received very urgent communications from a very confused Fleet Admiral who would really like to know what’s going on,”
“This is outside her pervue,” the Vilkas voice came back, “Stand down, or we will open fire,”
“They must have stopped jamming to get this out,” Travs muttered to Paulson, “Broadcast to these ships, but try to get our link to Vonna back up,”
“Defiant, this is Lt Commander Travs,” she said, “We thank you for your aid and we’re willing to surrender to civilian Federation authorities. But given the actions of the Vilkas, you’ll understand if we’d rather not surrender to anyone in Starfleet,”
“Lt Commander Travs, I’m not sure you’ll have that luxury,” replied the Defiant’s commander, “But I assure you, my crew and I are not involved in whatever has been done to you and your people,”
“More ships dropping out of warp,” Vanheath called, “Civilian ships! I’m picking up media transponders! FNN, AWN, Kronokor, Alpha Quadrant Today…and more!”
“I guess we’ll play it your way, Defiant,” Travs said, “You’re under the public eye now. But you’ll understand if we want to finish telling our story at this point. As an insurance policy.”
“One moment, I’m requesting guidance from higher,” the crisp voice paused for a moment, “This may take a few minutes, if you catch my drift.”
Outside the cockpit windows, there was a sudden flash of light as the USS Vilkas abruptly came about and jumped into warp.
“Lt Command Travs? Howlers? Ve haff visual from AWN media contractor on site, zey vill relay comms. Please respond,”
“Take your time, Defiant,” Travs said as Mayle, Paulson and most of the other Howlers nearly collapsed in relief. “OK, Dr. Vonna, where were we?”
Once the Howler Cache (as it came to be known) hit the public networks, the gig was all but up. Travs and her team continued to spill the beans on the entire operation, witnessed now by no fewer than fourteen separate media entities, Federation and non-aligned.
The USS Farkas, now under the command of Commander Belis and with its warp core successfully retrieved, transported every crew-member not personally vetted by Belis into custody at Starbase 375. The Farkas rendezvoused with the Lac-des-Loupes, but the Howlers refused to come on board until Belis took AWN and FNN’s representatives and the Defiant’s commander on a full tour of the ship, including the Howler’s Den facilities, the medical and science labs, access to those personnel willing to be interviewed, and anything else that would help confirm their story.
Then the gig was completely up.
Starfleet Intelligence disavowed all knowledge of the Howlers Initiative, of course, claiming that Harth and his superiors were running their own, independent operation. None of the Howlers believed that for a minute, but at least once Harth was confirmed to be under arrest they felt comfortable enough to surrender themselves to the Defiant, who transferred them immediately to the Federation Security office for the Bajoran Sector, who in turn whisked them away to The Farm medical recovery facility.
They may have wound up in a lab in the end, but with the full attention of the Federation media sphere focused on them they were also getting the best treatment the Federation could provide.
Some time later…
“All right, I think it’s time we adjourned for the day,” declared the presiding officer, “Lt Commander Travs, we will advise you if further testimony is required from any of your officers. May your recovery go smoothly,”
“Thank you, sir,” Travs said politely. At a nod from her, Mayle tapped at a side panel and the courtroom around them vanished, revealing an empty holodeck grid.
“Transmission has ceased,” he said, “So Syl, if you need to scratch your butt without half the Federation seeing it, go ahead,”
“Oh, merci,” Syl immediately began scratching while Paulson rolled her eyes.
“And that’s the last of them,” Travs consulted her padd, “Unless one of the courts martial needs extra testimony, but I have assurances that will only happen under extraordinary circumstances. So take some time to focus on yourselves. And don’t forget the Dominion representatives are arriving in two days.”
“Think they’ll have anything interesting to say?” Vanheath asked, the tilt of his head hinting that he didn’t think they would.
“Maybe they can at least tell us if the Howler Virus was already on that courier of theirs before it crashed,” Travs suggested.
The Howlers had been at The Farm for months now, with their time split between treatment, medical research and participating in dozens of investigations and proceedings. Family members had come to visit, some accepting long-term accommodations in a section of the facility dedicated to keeping close friends and family in relatively close proximity to recovering patients.
The investigations into the Farkas crewmembers had been concluded the fastest and ranged from expulsion from Starfleet and significant penal time (Captain Harth) to medals of valour (Commander Belis). Most of the crew had received slaps on the wrist of varying severity, but it was a group of admirals in Starflet Intelligence whose courts martial were proving the most complicated, not to mention the most embarrassing for Starfleet and the Federation.
But aside from being called on to testify and bear witness, the full public release of the Howlers Cache meant that most of their ordeal was already public knowledge. For them, it was time to heal. Even if a cure for the virus hadn’t been found yet, the months or even years of abuse and trauma they’d suffered was going to call for a lot of therapy.
“You going to thermal therapy this afternoon?” Paulson asked Mayle.
“Are you just asking so you know whether you and your boyfriends can have the sauna to yourselves again?” Mayle asked.
“Well…” Paulson smirked.
“Look, just hang a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door this time,” Mayle pleaded, “I really didn’t need to see…what I saw.”
“Good idea,” Paulson nodded, “So what are you doing this afternoon?”
“I’ve got viral sequencing with Wolfman,” Mayle said, “With all the tampering they did with me to make that control serum, they don’t know if my virus is still similar enough to yours that a cure would work on both,”
“I can’t believe you’re seeing Wolfman,” Paulson shook her head, “After everything he did to us! And to you!”
“Yeah well, he also saved all our lives,” Mayle said, a bit more harshly than he’d intended, “And part of his sentence if he ever hopes to practice medicine again is an ungodly number of community service hours. And him and his team are the only real medical experts on us. So…”
Paulson thought about it for a moment.
“The Farm is keeping him in line?” she finally asked.
“He’s required to work with one of their doctors at all times,” Mayle assured her, “And really Seeta…now that he’s not keeping up appearances for Harth, he’s not that bad.”
“I’ll see if Porkchop will see him for that analysis series he wants to run tomorrow,” Paulson sighed, “But there’s no way in hell Syl will go anywhere near the man,”
“Two out of three,” Mayle shrugged.
“I will admit,” Nacht was saying, “I was impressed with the way you stood down Vanheath with nothing but a hand phaser when he was in Howler form. Krogorr the Barbarian would be proud.”
“And Morreth,” the counselor turned to the Klingon, “How does that make you feel?
“I…thank you, Sean,” Morreth replied, “It is good to know that you still have some level of respect for me, after everything that happened.”
“And I think that’s our time for today,” the counselor tossed her thick, dark curls, “And high time I booked myself a vacation,” she muttered under her breath.
“You going to D&D Night?” Nacht asked as the two stood to leave.
“No,” Morreth said, “I hear Lt Coxwell is insisting we play Bat’leths & BiHnuchs instead. I hate that game.”
“Also…I’m leaving. As soon as I can,” Morreth said quietly.
“Going off to be ‘what you were meant to be’, huh?” Nacht asked quietly.
“Yes,” Morreth nodded. The two stared awkwardly at each other for a moment.
“I’ll miss you,” Nacht admitted, “Even if you’re an arrogant, ass-kissing, rule-obsessed, chaotic evil pain in the ass,”
“And I will miss you, even if you are a by-the-book human with no battle urge and the mistaken idea that ‘chaotic evil’ is a bad alignment.”
“Hey, most Klingons are lawful evil, and you know it!”
“I am not most Klingons,” Morreth shrugged.
“I guess most Klingons can’t turn into their own targ,” Nacht said.
“Goodbye, Sean,” Morreth turned to leave, “I will miss your stupid jokes,”
“Bye,” Nacht replied quietly.
The next day, Travs had donned a comfortable one-piece bathing suit and was walking along the path to the nearest beach when Morreth caught up to her. Their time on the sunny medical treatment planet had brought some colour to his normally pasty complexion, though he was still a lot of sunshine away from a typical swarthy Klingon appearance.
“Lt Commander,” he said in his still-nasal voice, “Now that the last of our legal obligations have been completed, I trust you will uphold your end of the bargain?”
“You stay long enough to testify, we give you a shuttle. But we don’t know for sure that they’re done with us,” Travs said, “We could still get a summons,”
“And I can still respond,” Morreth said, holding out a padd, “As a private citizen.”
“You’re sure about this?” Travs asked, taking the pad with his resignation request all filled out and signed, “Starfleet said they won’t force treatment on any of us, even if they do manage to find a cure, but…I mean, this is still a dangerous, alien virus. We don’t know what other fun side effects might be in store for us,”
“I’m sure,” Morreth said.
“OK,” Travs pressed a thumb to the padd, acknowledging and approving Morreths resignation, “Enjoy civilian life,”
Travs nearly fell over as Morreth grabbed her in a quick hug, murmured something in her ear, then left.
Travs looked around briefly, swallowed nervously, then continued on to the beach.
Morreth’s small shuttle left orbit of The Farm. He tapped the controls, setting course for a mostly uninhabited moon near the Klingon-Federation border. The moon was a nature preserve with no strategic resources or value to speak of, so both the Federation and Klingon Empire were content to ignore it, aside from a small science outpost (Federation) and hunting lodge (Klingon) at opposite ends of the main continent. The perfect place for him to privately explore his life as a Howler.
“Ahh, Mr Morreth,” Morreth jumped as a tall, slim, bearded human materialized in the seat next to him with unusual abruptness, “Congratulations on your early retirement. So sorry you left the service so quickly. Are you sure Section 31 can’t convince you stay just a bit longer?”
“I already told you,” Morreth said, “I’m not interested in being your attack dog. None of the Howlers are. The ones who know Section 31 exists will spend their lives avoiding you. And the ones who don’t know…you would be wise not to tell them. Not after what you did to us.”
“Oh, well,” the Section 31 agent shrugged, “I’d be lying if I said it was only Starfleet Intelligence taking the fall for this. Section 31 isn’t very forgiving of failure. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a few MIA admirals suddenly turn up with no memory of where they’ve been for the past decade or two. So you could say we’re under new management, as least as far as projects like the Howlers are involved.”
“Leave me alone,” Morreth said, “I’m not interested,”
“Very well,” the agent leaned closer, “But I’ll give you the same warning you gave your old commander.”
Morreth shivered as the agent leaned in and whispered the exact words he’d whispered to Travs only hours before.
“Section 31 is dangerous. And they’re always watching.”
After another full day of treatments, scans and therapy sessions, Ensign Greg Mayle returned to his quarters. Far nicer than junior officers quarters on the Farkas, his new accommodations featured a stunning view of the forest outside the compound walls, floor to ceiling windows, multi-function shower, jacuzzi and anti-gravity bed.
The first thing Mayle heard when he opened his door was the sound of purring. In the week since he’d let Felix out of the stasis tube the poor cat had been in for months, he’d never once heard purring. Lots of meowing. Plenty of hissing. A few yowls. But no purring. For a split second, he thought that maybe he’d have a peaceful night. Then he noticed that his couch and his chair were both shredded beyond repair, with bits of fluff floating in the air. The few knick-knacks he’d unpacked were scattered across the floor, mostly broken, and the standard-issue Starfleet Plant-in-a-Vase near the windows had been knocked over, the water soaking into the carpet.
As soon as he saw him, Felix jumped up from where he’d curled in the remains of the couch, flicked back his ears and hissed.
“Hey!” Mayle exclaimed, “I am tying to recover from a traumatic life event, and my counselor says I’m supposed to avoid stressful situations!”
He lunged at the cat, only to have him scamper between his legs. He darted at him, barely missing his tail as he ran out the door, which slid obediently closed afterward. Mayle groaned, resigning himself to spending the evening chasing the cat around the complex. Maybe he could just call Porkchop to help…no. Not Porkchop, he’d probably eat Felix. Vanheath would be better, he’d just sniff the cat to death.
Mayle was so busy focusing on which Howler he needed he was completely caught off guard when a wave of nausea send him spinning against the wall. He righted himself, only to fall to his knees as a powerful spasm gripped his chest. His hands clutched at his heart, just in time to feel his ribs starting to push out. His bones stretched, but he barely noticed the cracking as he felt his uniform tighten, then give way as the fabric ripped. His ears relocated, brushing the ceiling in his quarters as they slid up the sides of his head, and his fingertips itched as his nails extended into long, wicked claws.
The transformation complete, he threw back his head and howled.
“So you actually managed four changes today?” Vanheath was asking Packman as they walked towards the terrace and the rooftop pool.
“Yeah, they used a quantum…ummm…not a quantum stasis field, but some sort of quantum stimulator? And I changed like, crazy fast, too!”
“Wonder if that sort of thing would have helped Mayle on the Farkas,” Vanheath wondered. He paused, then tilted his head to listen, “Hey, do you hear that?”
“Aw, look,” Packman pointed as Felix scampered down the corridor, “His cat got out again! Here kitty-kitty-kitty!”
There was a loud, animal roar. Felix bolted, giving out a loud yowling noise.
The doors to Mayle’s quarters burst into the corridor, slamming against the opposite wall as a dark-furred animal tore through them and chased after the cat, it’s foot-claws leaving deep gashes in the carpet. Mayle snarled as he ran past them, knocking them both to the floor.
“We have a winner!” Vanheath called happily, “Atta boy, Greg!”
“After him!” Packman laughed, “Don’t let him catch that cat!”
“Why? It’s his first time…let him have fun!”
“Do you REALLY want to console him in the morning if he wakes up with Felix’s bloody tail hanging out of his mouth?” Packman pointed out, “We don’t need another Porkchop here,”
“Good point,” Vanheath nodded.
With a tearing of cloth and matching roars, they changed and bolted after Mayle.
That’s it folks! After twelve years and the worst writer’s block I’ve ever experienced, Star Traks: Howlers is complete!