The soft hiss of hypospray on flesh seemed so loud that Lieutenant Hawkeye wondered it did not wake hir patient, even without the stimulant it added to the wolf morph's bloodstream. Shi inhaled sharply, suddenly aware that shi had been holding hir breath while administering the gentle medication, as if afraid that the wolf would open her eyes, correction, her eye, while Hawkeye was too close to her. It was a ridiculous thought, and Hawkeye chuffed at hirself. The whole point was to awaken the patient. But the chakat felt a wary prickling on the skin of hir neck and backs when shi was close to Captain Baker-Jones. It might simply have been because the wolf's featureless left eye could not shut; it was definitely inactive, but still it seemed to follow Hawkeye around Sickbay.
The stimulant dosage had been kept extremely low; Hawkeye had no desire to tax the wolf's weakened system. Shi rechecked hir patient's chart. Aremist Baker-Jones was almost exactly one hundred and eighty centimeters in height. It was hard to believe that, minus all artificial limbs and organs, she weighed well under fifty kilos. She was so thin . Hawkeye looked over to the still form, hir only steady companion in Sickbay for the past week. Despite the regenerative agents and nutrients now coursing through her veins, the wolf morph's flesh was pale and sickly under the wisp of tawny fur that had begun to regrow across her body. She should have appeared fragile, even a bit deformed now that her artificial limbs were overproportioned to her lanky body. Instead, Hawkeye thought, she looked dangerous. Like a hungry ghost was the comparison that ran through the chakat's mind in the quiet hours. Even though Baker-Jones' bed was surrounded by a low-grade force field, Hawkeye was glad that a security guard had been stationed outside Sickbay since the wolf morph's arrival.
A short, low-pitched sound escaped the unconscious wolf's mouth, and Hawkeye jumped slightly, hir ears pricked and hir spines on edge. The chakat checked her patient's bioreadings, and then gave her another minute injection, bringing her closer to full awareness. It was almost time. Hawkeye touched hir badge and called out, "Lieutenant Hawkeye to Captain Marshall. Sir, my patient should be awake shortly." As shi waited, Hawkeye found hirself staring down at the wolf woman. Her scent was weak and unpleasant through the field. Her breathing, ragged and torn on her arrival, was now even and clear. Most of the damage to her remaining systems was healing swiftly. Hawkeye had seen patients in worse shape, if none whose degeneration was so long-term. But something about Baker-Jones repulsed hir. The horrid feeling refused to go away. Hawkeye had never seen a person just for their physical form, or wanted to turn away from one who was wounded, but shi wanted the gaunt wolf out of Sickbay as soon as possible. Whether or not she's recovered.
Hawkeye crossed hir arms and turned away, disgusted with hirself. Shi couldn't imagine what Winterwind would think of hir. Winter … The older chakat and almost all of the medical staff had been on the surface of Vermitris-2 since their arrival, dealing with emergencies among the Packmaster's hibernating passengers. That entire ship had to be stabilized before the teams from Magus could even consider waking them up. Jacob was planetside as well, organizing a thorough decontamination of the other vessel. Their absence couldn't be helped, but Hawkeye wanted someone with whom to spend the late hours. Shi had twice woken up from chaotic dreams about hir patient, and had begun to dislike hir own quarters.
"Time for a visit with Counselor Segar," Hawkeye mused to the quiet air as shi checked hir duty list. "I wonder if he can write prescriptions for hot dates." Hir tail twitched in feeble amusement, then stiffened as a moan came from the wolf morph's bed. The chakat was by her side in a moment. "Captain? Can you hear me?" shi asked with forced calm. Baker-Jones' monitors indicated that she was fully awake, but her eyes remained inactive, her ears limp. Hawkeye repeated hirself and watched intently.
The wolf woman's right eye flicked open, and began to roll in slow circles. Her jaw worked slightly, and her synthetic voice droned through the room. "Hungry… winter…" The natural portions of her larynx gave out a thin whine, and the right side of her face twitched, causing Baker-Jones to bare her recently repaired teeth.
Hawkeye stared. How did she…? I didn't say any of that! Hir hands dangled at hir sides. The wolf woman twitched and then began to shake. She jumped, bouncing off of the weak force field with a crackle and a static flash. Ozone filled Hawkeye's nostrils. Hir patient's monitors cried alarms. The chakat blinked hirself into action. "Computer, lower force field!" shi called, and then shi was tending to Baker-Jones.
The wolf morph's biorhythms were speeding up; she panted, whined, convulsed. Her heart rate doubled less than ten seconds into the seizure, and she began gasping. Hawkeye put in a call for emergency assistance as shi administered a new series of injections. Hir teeth ground tightly. "Come on, Captain, bring it down, just bring it back down," shi whispered through a grimace. The chakat glanced up at hir patient's monitors. Baker-Jones's central nervous system flashed like a Chakonan thunderstorm. Hawkeye could watch her brain beginning to burn cell by cell as something arced wildly through it. The wolf woman's head was thrown back. The muscles of her throat fluttered. Her frail skin seemed ready to burst, save where her cybernetic limbs lay calm and peaceful. The injections were working, but far too slowly. The chakat could feel the edges of panic drawing in on hir. She's resistant to the medication. She can't last long enough for the hypo to take effect. Hawkeye tapped switches underneath the monitors, preparing to induce a coma in Baker-Jones before her nervous system could mutilate itself. Hir eyes moved to hir patient again.
The wolf woman was looking at hir. "They need…" buzzed hir vocal apparatus, and then her eye began spinning again. The injections were calming her convulsions, but her neurons continued their suicidal, staccato dance. Hawkeye reached for her hand instinctively, even as shi readied to shock Baker-Jones into a deeper sleep. The chakat's soft, strong fingers found those of the wolf woman: narrow and cold, completely lifeless. Hawkeye let go before shi had time to consider doing so, and put hir hand to the wolf's head instead.
Shi never placed the final command. The monitors ceased their screaming. Hawkeye stood beside hir patient. A hand touched hir shoulder; a query came to hir ears. Shi shifted hir feet, looked around. Two ensigns and the security officer stood behind hir, radiating concern and caution. Hawkeye searched around, found hir hands. They rested on Aremist Baker-Jones' forehead and cheek. The wolf woman lay almost peacefully. Her readouts were settled and even.
"Doctor?" asked one of the ensigns. "What can we do?"
Hawkeye looked back over hir shoulder at them. "Her implants need adjusting," shi responded before thinking. Shi received blank looks, and clarified. "She'll have medical information aboard her ship, get it for me. I can't move right now. It's probably encrypted in the captain's log," shi added, amazed that shi could know such a thing. "And tell Captain Marshall that his interview with my patient will have to be delayed." The chakat looked at Aremist with gentle eyes as they hurried to comply. The wolf woman wasn't repulsive. She was in need.
The security officer, a strapping, brown-eyed human, stepped up beside and a little behind Hawkeye, his attention fixed firmly on Baker-Jones' placid form. His hand was still on his holstered weapon. "Lieutenant, what is it?"
"She has a powerful Talent, Michaels. At least an E5," the chakat murmured. Letting her pity and fear for the wolf woman fall away, Hawkeye envisioned a flowing river, washing away the chaotic flotsam of emotions that kept battering at hir patient's mind. The chakat's calm, buffering thoughts carried through hir touch, kept the wolf slumbering. Hir hands stroked the woman's head. Baker-Jones whined once and then subsided. "For some reason, she can't block us out, so I'm doing it for her, as best I can. I don't dare move away until she's safe. Just being aboard Magus could kill her."
* * *
"You look exhausted, Lieutenant," Thaddeus Marshall noted in a sidelong way as he studied the wolfmorph from across the mess hall. Baker-Jones sat several tables removed from anyone else save Yeoman Michaels, who stood guard as she examined her meal. She had been staring at the plates for almost five minutes, scarcely moving, while Marshall and Lt. Hawkeye spoke quietly near the main entrance.
"'Jones is responsive, Sir, so it was worth it." the chakat responded with a sigh. "I'd still feel more comfortable if Commander Winterwind could examine her, though." Hawkeye's tail hung low. Shi felt bedraggled, but content. Shi had spent four hours beside Baker-Jones while the captain's log aboard Packmaster was decoded and the wolf woman's information transmitted to Sickbay. It had taken twelve more hours to decipher the notes about her cerebral implants and learn how to manipulate them, selectively shutting down specific pathways of hir patient's parietal lobes and cerebrum. Then had come a full day of snatching catnaps while helping Baker-Jones back onto her feet. Hawkeye's legs trembled with neglected fatigue.
Marshall shook his head. "Winterwind won't be leaving those jury-rigged hibernation pods on the other ship for some time, Hawkeye. And shi and I both have every confidence in your ability to manage Sickbay." He cocked his head towards the chakat. "But get some real sleep as soon as this meal is over."
Hawkeye nodded. "Yes, Captain." They both regarded Baker-Jones for a time. "What's going to happen to her?"
The vulpinoid frowned. "She's clearly responsible for the Magister Vos Milistisith . Her own log confirms it. But details are nonexistent, and we can't involve ourselves without cause. Hopefully I'll learn more when we interview her. If we don't receive other instructions from Star Fleet, though, I expect she'll eventually be returned to her ship." He crossed his arms. "Hawkeye, how is it that she was still alive when she was bought aboard?"
The chakat looked to hir captain. Suspicion radiated from his every pore. The vulpinoid had insisted on full updates of the wolf morph's status, and Hawkeye had no doubt that he considered Baker-Jones a threat. "I really don't know yet, Sir. She was exposed to radiation levels exceeding eight hundred percent of what should have been lethal, but she was only showing the mildest signs of cellular breakdown." Hawkeye shook hir head and shrugged in amazement. "Baker-Jones' genetic structure doesn't entirely conform to Terran standards, and I'd bet the 'passengers' aboard her ship are much the same way. She's only about ninety-three percent canoid in makeup, most of the remainder being a hybrid of vulpinoid and manufactured sequences. Judging from her Talent and formations in her brain, I'd put forward that she's partially related to skunktaurs. And then there's a small percentage for which I just can't account. Not without better facilities," shi added. "'Jones almost died because I didn't know that. The differences in her biochemistry are so subtle that I didn't pick them up at first, and so safely sedating her was next to impossible until we retrieved the data from Packmaster . If she hadn't been unconscious when she came aboard, I really doubt she'd be intact now."
Marshall nodded, never taking his eyes from the wolf woman. "Do you see what she's doing?" Without waiting for Hawkeye to reply, he continued. "She's looking down at the table, but her left eye is scanning the entire room. She keeps one ear tilted towards Yeoman Michaels at all times, and I don't doubt that she would hear him draw his weapon. Her hand is hovering near the utensils, ready to grab, even though she isn't using them. Our 'guest' is ready for a fight."
The vulpinoid was tense beyond belief to Hawkeye's senses, and shi almost felt he might jump to the attack himself. "Sir, do you think that she should be restrained?"
"We don't have any reason to do so," Marshall said with a slight shake of his head. "She's under observation and has no access to our systems, but still… did you ever read 'Aesop's Fables?'" Hawkeye nodded. "While I was examining her log yesterday, one came to my mind, about a farmer who found a snake, freezing in the snow. He took pity on it, and put it inside his shirt to save it."
"I think I remember that one."
The vulpinoid met Hawkeye's gaze for only a second. "When the snake warmed, it woke up. And the first thing it did was bite the man to death."
Hawkeye didn't respond. Shi saw no menace in the wolf morph, but the security of the ship was not hir primary business. Shi studied hir patient, wondering if shi should look at her with any of the suspicion that hir captain possessed. Across the room, Aremist Baker-Jones apparently came to a sudden decision. She picked up a small bowl of bland stew and downed it in one gulp. The wolf woman dropped the bowl and stared at the remainder of her meal.
Marshall excused himself and exited the hall. Hawkeye watched him leave, then fetched hirself a meal almost identical to what Baker-Jones was eating, and went to join her. "Mind a little company, Captain?" the chakat ventured. "I'm sorry about being gone so long."
"Sit," the wolf woman replied in hir nearly inflectionless tone. "Thank you for your efforts, Doctor," she continued as Hawkeye settled hir haunches onto the floor. "I'm grateful." Baker-Jones' face was a cipher. The ears, which had been almost completely replaced underneath the skin, turned and tilted like antennae when they moved. Her muzzle, along with much of her face, had suffered neurological damage and was now limp on the left side. And her eyes…
"How is your food?" Hawkeye queried, pointing a fork at the wolf's plate. "I know it's dull fare, but your digestive tract isn't in great shape right now. Best to stick to something safe and nutritious. Doctor's orders," shi added with a smile.
"I haven't… had anything this good in a long time, Doctor." The wolf woman kept her muzzle pointed at her meal.
Hawkeye nodded sympathetically. "If I may ask, what did you eat last? The traces we found in your system had molecular similarities to samples from Vermitris."
"Is that what it's called?" the wolf woman asked, lifting her nose a bit. "I think I was starting to hallucinate. Anything would have been better than what I had been eating." Hawkeye started to ask about her diet, but Baker-Jones cut in. "My ship used to look similar to this one, back when I was born." She turned her head, taking in the mess hall. A trio of younger crewmen who had been sneaking glances at her hurriedly turned away. Baker-Jones appeared not to notice. "What is the status of the others?"
Hawkeye blinked, oddly surprised. Shi had been watching the wolf woman's movements intently, and barely heard the question at first. Baker-Jones possessed a curious economy of motion, possibly as a result of her cybernetic functions. "Oh! Our CMO is working to stabilize the pods. Hir teams will start awakening your crew as soon as there's not a worry about contamination." The wolf bared her teeth on one side, and it took a moment for Hawkeye to register the expression as a smile. Baker-Jones was very hard to 'read'. "What is it?" the chakat asked.
"Contaminating my crew?" the wolf woman queried. Hawkeye nodded. "Your superior doesn't have to worry about that. The radiation aboard my ship isn't sufficient to harm them. Even the children can handle those levels."
"Really!" Hawkeye just looked at her. "Still, better safe than sorry. And we'd be breaking protocol if we did otherwise, anyway." Shi leaned forward over the table. "How is that you can tolerate such radiation, Captain? Your medical logs are incomplete. Actually, I need to know more about your implants and organs also, as soon as you feel up to it." Hawkeye's fatigue was dissolving as the two spoke. It was a temporary reprieve, but shi was exulting in hir renewed strength. Hir tail swished.
"Don't call me Captain. I was only Acting Captain, and I'm not even that at the moment. Our original command crew wasn't…" Baker-Jones paused, looked at her plates. Most of her food had not been touched. "They couldn't tolerate the same environment as the rest of us. Packmaster had difficulties with maintaining even minimum power levels for a time, and we couldn't keep the shields to the levels needed to deflect all stellar radiation."
Hawkeye resisted the urge to reach across the table. Those hands were not made for holding. "Those were the people that created you?"
"Yes. I took command when they grew weak. They eventually died. If the crew is awakened, Lopalo should be informed that he has command." Hawkeye already had a sense of this person in hir mind from hir extended contact with the wolf woman. Shi thought that Lopalo might be Baker-Jones' brother.
"It would help enormously if you could show me how and from what you were engineered, Capt… can I call you Aremist?"
"Yes." The wolf glanced up from the table.
"Aremist. I'm Hawkeye. But you know that." The chakat offered a welcoming smile. Shi was more nervous than shi would have expected around hir patient, but also very curious. "Treating you and your crew will be easier if we know more about your genetic makeup. Despite your appearance, you're not precisely a wolf."
"Despite yours, you're not a feline. Not precisely." This time, Aremist was definitely smiling. After a second, her lopsided grin vanished, and she put a hand over her muzzle.
Hawkeye reached out and removed the hand, covering it with hir own. The lifeless appendage was surprisingly delicate to the touch. "No, don't be ashamed of that, Aremist. It's just nerve damage. You can't help that. We might try some regenerative techniques on it, if you're aboard ship long enough." The wolf looked down again, but she didn't pull her hand away. Hawkeye wondered how much sensory information the mechanical limbs gave their owner. "But really, we can do much more for you if we know where you came from. Is there anything I should know about?"
Aremist's mouth worked. Her free hand grasped the edge of the table. "Some sequences are entirely artificial. Besides those, I possess varying percentages of canoid, vulpinoid, mustelitaur, and Vrael elements."
Hawkeye raised hir ears in confused surprise. "I… Aremist, you're sure?" She's not even completely Terran?
"Yes. Most of the related data was lost several years ago, but what's left aboard my ship will confirm it for you. All of my crew have similar 'design elements'." The wolf woman cocked her head. "You've seen the Vos Milistisith ." Her right eye twitched horizontally, ever so slightly. Hawkeye felt a queer trepidation, as if something had brushed against hir in the dark. "Yes, I did enter combat with that vessel. Not by choice. That's why my ship is so damaged."
The chakat found hir voice. "You really shouldn't discuss this with me, Aremist. Captain Marshall will want an interview soon, and this is his business more than mine." Shi released the wolf's hand and minded hir meal for a few bites. Aremist went back to watching her food. Hawkeye regarded hir patient. Reactivating the implants in the wolf morph's brain may have saved her, but they also dampened her emotional responses. Hawkeye suspected that they could be fine tuned, but shi didn't have the experience to do so. It was a little unsettling to think about. Aremist's empathy had simply been shut down. Even then, the effect was sporadic. Hawkeye could feel fragments of hir patient poking through, intruding on hir awareness like a buzzing fly. Shi couldn't make sense of what shi saw. "Are any others aboard Packmaster like you? Talented, I mean." It wasn't what shi wanted to ask, but it would do.
"Is that how you refer to it?" Aremist responded without looking up. "Lopalo is empathic, though he's not as strongly affected by it, nor is he as unfocused. We were never examined by experts, but he would not be rated above an E2, in our estimations. He doesn't need his own implants. None of the others rate higher than E1, and they are few."
Aremist did not answer at once. "High."
Hawkeye continued to study the wolf woman. It's like trying to make out a program with too much static that keeps cutting on and off. Impossible to ignore, impossible to watch. "I can't imagine. Even most chakats aren't in that range."
"No one is. Perhaps a few of your kind, as my Fathers suggested. It worked too well." Aremist kept looking down.
Why is she staring at her food? "Aremist, were you supposed to be this way?" This time the wolf woman did look up. "I mean, were you supposed to be strongly empathic? For that matter, were you built to be enigmatic?"
The wolf didn't seem to notice the comment. "Supposed to be, yes. I was intended to be able to discern the needs of later generations, my younger cousins. They wanted an… overseer of sorts, a nanny."
"Our Fathers." She looked down again.
"Is something wrong with the food, Aremist?" The wolf didn't answer. Being casual was too hard for Hawkeye. One question kept coming back to hir, and shi couldn't take it anymore. Her words came out in a near-whisper. "Why did you kill everyone on the Vrael vessel?"
Aremist's hand tightened on a spoon lying on the table. The metal utensil curled and warped between her fingers. "Osidon ships have been chasing my ship for seventy-eight months. Their fleet size is very limited. The more damage I can do to them, the more space I have between possible encounters."
Hawkeye's mouth was dry. "That's… that's not an answer. The ship was no threat. It couldn't be a threat, not ever again. But you fired on all the lifepods." Shi didn't want Aremist to be in the wrong, but could not think of any good reason for her actions. Seventy-eight months … Hawkeye could not 'read' the wolf, but had no doubt that she was telling the truth.
"Would you have let them escape with information on your vessel, if your wards were sleeping inside it?" The wolf morph's buzzing voice added an unnerving tone to her question. Her muzzle barely moved when she talked, the artificial larynx doing almost all of the work.
The chakat sat silent. "I don't know, Aremist."
"Why do you keep asking questions, if your captain wants to speak with me?"
Hawkeye took the wolf's right hand again. "I saw a lot about you while we were in Sickbay. It was all chaotic, no words, not really even images, just a sense of… I don't know. It didn't really tell me anything. Just that something happened." Shi was morbidly fascinated by the wolf's hand. Close contact normally gave a chakat a stronger sense of another person, but the cybernetic limbs were blank spots, voids that lay between hir and Aremist. Hawkeye turned the hand over, gazed at it, touched hir fingertips to the palm. "Did they do this?"
Shi looked up. Aremist was watching their hands. Her face was impenetrable. "We should return to your Sickbay. I believe my implants need adjusting."
* * *
Even the bare bones of Baker-Jones' medical chart were too much to take in all at once. Three partially or completely replaced limbs, and almost every bone and major muscle group showing evidence of modification with several techniques and levels of skill. The wolf morph's kidneys, bladder, lower intestine, reproductive system, pelvic bone and certain glands had apparently suffered trauma and been replaced as well. Her tail had been removed. The wolf's artificial larynx, ears and eyes were regulated by cranial implants, and operated independently of her autonomic functions. Nerve bundles in the skull had been severed, possibly burned away. Her cerebrum and medulla oblongata showed such deformity her existence was amazing. Certain regions of the brain had completely overridden others; Lieutenant Hawkeye's report suggested that the wolf had been surgically modified as an infant simply to allow her to balance and walk upright. A data plug still existed in the base of her skull, allowing direct access to her spinal cord and optical implants.
More than once in her life, she might have been better off dead. Thaddeus Marshall looked up from his screen and across the room to where the wolf sat. Just having her in his ready room made the vulpinoid edgy. Aremist Baker-Jones was flanked by a pair of security guards, and another stood behind Marshall. All of them stood at the ready, but none were as tense as their captain. He forced himself to breathe. The wolf woman was unnerving. She didn't move. Her eyes held no reflection of the ready room, Marshall, or the luxurious viewport behind him. He had little idea how to deal with her, even with what little insight he had received from Hawkeye and Segar.
"I've read your log," he began.
"Would you like to elaborate?"
She tilted her head minutely. It made Marshall think of a reptile. "Would you?"
"Your actions aren't under my jurisdiction. And judging from what I've seen and from the reports of the science teams planetside, you haven't much incentive to speak."
"You haven't yet asked to return to your ship, your crew. Why is that?"
"It's not my ship. I was only caretaker."
"Don't claim you're only Acting Captain to me. You've been in charge of Packmaster for well over three years. It's your vessel."
Baker-Jones regarded him. She doesn't blink, he noticed for the first time. Not ever . "It wasn't what I was trained for. It's only what happened."
Marshall felt like cursing at her. "The ship's logs indicate that your creators specifically made you responsible. They're your siblings, your cousins, your family on that ship, Captain Baker-Jones." He quashed the urge to clench his fists. The very idea of a captain disavowing responsibility for a ship disgusted him.
"Do you have a question?"
"How did you destroy the Magister Vos Milistisith ?"
"I showed them my belly." Marshall stared at the wolf until she continued. "I long ago realized that my ship's systems weren't enough to deter a Vrael cruiser, so I improvised. The Packmaster's reserve power cells were located in its belly. I modified them to power retrofitted beam projectors that I designed and my crew installed. The irradiated hull served to confuse the sensors of the Vrael ship, so the modifications were unnoticed. When they came within range, I rolled the Packmaster and fired. We sustained heavy damage when most of the projectors overloaded, but we survived."
"You said in your log that you offered to surrender."
"If I hadn't, they might have fired first."
"Why would they have fired on you, Captain?"
"As you said, this is not under your jurisdiction, Captain Marshall."
The vulpinoid steepled his fingers. "A Vrael ship is en route to Vermitris-2. We found the Vos Milistisith some time ago and transmitted its location to them. I'd venture to say that they've guessed your whereabouts. Captain, your ship will not be fully functional before they arrive. You may wish to be more forthcoming, and tell me why the Stellar Federation should intervene. If you had cause to believe they would destroy your ship before, they surely will now." Marshall was not about to let the alien vessel kill the crew of the Packmaster , but he saw no need to fully inform the wolf until he better understood the situation.
Baker-Jones was silent. The room watched her.
"My Fathers were Doctors Maxwell Baker and Leonard Jones, geneticists of some note. So I understand." She did move now, turning her hands up and gazing at the palms. "They, along with Doctor Micheline N'Gumbe, Alosel of Raksha, Doctor Zal Messeger and several assistants undertook an expedition to the fourth world in the Osidon System."
"The home system of the Vrael."
"Yes. Osidon Delta is inhabitable and supports a small ecosystem, but until only seven years ago, the Vrael had no real presence there. The group grounded a vessel there and converted it into a research facility. They successfully hid it from the Vrael for years. Packmaster , a support ship, made regular trips between Osidon and Federation space. It's fitted with sensor refractors, as you know by now. They won't fool a vessel like this for long, but the Vrael technology is more primitive."
"Why did you hide from the Vrael?"
"They don't respect medical research."
"Can you elaborate?"
"The more influential Vrael cultures believe in a sanctity and perfection of the physical body. They don't condone 'tampering', which includes many surgical procedures and genetic research. They've invented an entire branch of law simply to deal with alien species and imported technology that might offend their populace. Replicators are generally forbidden, as is transporter tech. Offworlders are not allowed in the Osidon system, because of a belief that they will somehow enter the food chain and taint it."
Marshall interrupted the wolf then. "What sort of research, Captain? Were they involved in engineering new forms of life?"
"I would think that obvious, since Doctor Hawkeye has informed you of everything that I have told hir. Yes. They created several generations of hybrids that could endure conditions on Osidon Delta. The inner planets of the system have been irradiated by their star, and the relatively few forms of life found there have managed complex adaptations to survive. My Fathers simply made use of certain Vrael qualities. Captain, is the approaching ship called the Sesem Ethemalu ?" She pronounced the words with an accented click that Marshall knew he couldn't have duplicated.
Marshall blinked. "It is. How did you know?"
"I have an understanding of some parts of their fleet. I thought it was the next closest vessel. But they shouldn't have found us so soon. When you communicated with them, Captain Marshall, you put my ship in jeopardy."
A scowl crossed the vulpinoid's lips. "I think we're well past the point where others can be held accountable for your fate," he stated in a flat tone. "Six years, six months, five days. That's how long you've been running in a damaged ship, drifting more often than not. That's a damned long time for you to be chased because you were sneaking around their territory!" Marshall took a breath. "Why didn't you appeal to the Stellar Federation or another entity for aid? Why wait until the situation was so desperate?"
Baker-Jones crossed her arms and gripped her biceps. "It's been desperate since the beginning, Captain Marshall. At most points along our journey, I was concerned that the Osidon Fleet would intercept any transmissions I sent out. And how was I to know how we'd be received? I've only been in your space once, and I wasn't allowed off ship, even when we picked up supplies for the Osidon Delta facility."
"Your creators originated in Federation Space, didn't they? You've surely seen something of our policies, our laws."
"What do you mean?"
"It isn't relevant. Captain, you can't let the Vrael get within firing range of my ship."
"You disavowed responsibility for the Packmaster . Shouldn't I take that up with Lopalo Baker-Jones? He's being awoken now, you know. Not that you've made any inquiries about their health." Marshall was sure that there was a snarl in his voice. This wolf morph had put her crew in hibernation for years, and then skirted the edges of inhabited space rather than seek help for them. And the reports that Marshall had received from the surface indicated that their survival was a pure miracle, apart from the six whose capsules had failed. He was disgusted with Baker-Jones. "In fact, your log barely refers to them at all. Why is that?"
"I worked more effectively when I didn't concern myself with the others," she replied. "Thinking about them distracted me."
"Why not keep someone else awake to assist you?"
"I did, at first. Eventually I sent everyone else to sleep. By the time I really needed them, I couldn't awaken them."
"Why did you put them all in hibernation, Baker-Jones?" the vulpinoid inquired. His tone was almost casual; his eyes were almost suspicious.
"Because I had to! I could already see starvation ahead if I even kept one crewmember awake for each duty shift. That's why we built the capsules to begin with!" The wolf's hands flexed, and she leaned forward in her seat. Her dark nose twitched.
Good, finally a reaction , Marshall thought. He rubbed his head for a moment, feeling a migraine coming on. She knows where I'm going with this . "So you put them all to sleep to protect them?" The wolf woman nodded. "And not because you didn't want them to see what would happen when your spare parts and supplies finally ran out?"
She actually flinched, but didn't answer. Marshall watched the wolf carefully, ignoring the growing ache in his skull. "Tell me something," he continued at last. "Did pods Six through Eight and Twelve through Fourteen fail on their own?" His eyes strayed to the monitor on his desk and the highlighted portions of the last report from the ground teams, and then back to the wolf woman. Her body and organic limbs were shaking. "You kept enough power in reserve to decimate a starship, and didn't try to make use of it to find a safe port? You must really, truly hate Vrael to drift around the galaxy, waiting for a chance to blow them up."
"I…" she began, "I don't hate Vrael." Aremist stood, her shoulders hunched forward. The security guards kept wary eyes on her movements. "And I didn't shut down any pods! There just weren't enough resources to keep them all going."
"Why not stop somewhere and acquire what you needed? Or seek refuge?"
"We didn't have anything worth trading!" she countered. "And I didn't know what the Federation would do with us."
Marshall flicked his ears in irritation at the headache. "I'd like to believe you, but it isn't possible, not knowing what I do. You had to be aware that you could request refugee and then official status with us, especially given your origins. No, I think you didn't seek our assistance sooner because the Vrael ships are pursuing you for criminal acts, and you know that they will inform us of those acts. Seventy-eight months?" Marshall shook his head. "No."
"You don't know," Aremist said. If not for her vocal implant, Marshall thought that it might have come out as a whisper.
"You're right, I don't. Not enough, not yet. But I do know that you wouldn't have stayed out in space that long, putting everything you could find in your ship's recyclers, unless you felt that you would be in more danger approaching us. And since you haven't committed any known crimes against members of the Stellar Federation, Acting Captain Baker-Jones, I'm left with only one conclusion." Captain Marshall rose, looking the wolf in the eyes as best he could. "I've made inquiries about the Packmaster to my superiors. For now, the Vrael stay away from the ship and its passengers. We'll know more within a day or so. You may wish to tell me the truth before a decision is made for us."
Marshall motioned to the security detail, and the pair flanking Aremist stepped up to guide her from the room. She turned and stalked towards the exit, then paused to look over her shoulder. "You should visit Vermitris-2, Captain," she intoned in her buzzing accent. "I imagine the night sky is a pretty sight."
"You were there for months. You mean you haven't seen it?"
"I don't stargaze," she replied, then turned and exited the room a step ahead of her escorts.
Marshall returned to his desk, a list of orders already overflowing his thoughts. Baker-Jones needed to be monitored at all times. Unfortunately, that meant keeping Lieutenant Hawkeye where shi could keep both eyes and hir empathic senses on hand. Even with the chakat's assessment of the wolf morph's crippling Talent, Marshall had no doubt that she posed a threat. Allowing her to stay aboard Magus bothered him, but he had no intention of putting her close to the ground crew while they rendered aid on the planet's surface.
"You don't stargaze, Aremist Baker-Jones," he mused aloud to himself. "That may be the problem." Captain Marshall brought up his upcoming schedule on the nearest screen, idly searching for an opportunity to transport down to Vermitris-2, and knowing full well that it was impossible. The Sesem Ethemalu could not be far off now, and the captain of the Magus needed to be present when it arrived. He closed his eyes briefly, willing away the pain in his head. She showed her belly before attacking …
* * * * * * * * * * *
Continued in Chapter Four
* * * * * * * * * * *
Chakats, Chakona, Voxxans, and Voxxa are copyright Bernard Doove
The Quange are copyright Roy D. Pounds II
Story is copyright © 2006 Coyotenose
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