Colonel Throckmorton looked at the young and impetuous junior officer that had been called from the ready room only moments ago. Captain Harper had only recently been promoted to that rank, and as of yet had not commanded a single mission before. He was straight from the military mold, though he did have an independent streak as bold as the streak of white that ran from the front to the back of the left side of his brown hair in him that Throckmorton admired. However, that streak, just as the one in his hair, often raised more eyebrows than it did anybody's confidence. Harper had on more than one occasion taken matters into his own hands and had compounded the original problem. More often than not though, his willingness to circumvent his orders had managed to bring about a better solution. Still, that problem with following directions had cost him many promotions in the past, even though his record was otherwise exemplary.
However, to be selected for a mission such as this, Harper was the only one that Throckmorton wanted. He had looked at the list of available captains, and had picked Harper on the first time through. Not that the others were not as capable, but that he sensed a certain ability to change game plan in midstream that would almost certainly be necessary for this mission. There would be no crew except a team of specialists, armed, and ready to take the werewolf down. Additionally, two of them would have paramedic skills, since Dr. Xenakis was apparently dead. Three more would be navigators themselves since Simmons had been injured and Kilpatrick was still missing in action.
"Now," Throckmorton began speaking, his own words so odd coming from his mouth, "we have reason to believe that the Pytheas is under attack from a werewolf. I know that sounds crazy, but Captain Rhodes has confirmed it. Your mission is to rendezvous with the Pytheas, and put the werewolf down, and then contain it. Obviously it will be in all our best interests to have this thing investigated in every conceivable way possible. I imagine that it is going to spend the rest of its life in a cage under experimentation."
"Sir, may I speak freely?" Harper interrupted suddenly.
"By all means, what is on your mind?"
"How in the world are we supposed to take down a creature that, according to what I've heard, can only be hurt by silver?" Harper seemed incredulous, as well he should be, Throckmorton thought.
"I don't know, but we are hoping that tranquilizer's will have the desired effect. They should work as normal, but neither I nor anybody else is an expert in these matters."
"Why don't we just find some silver and use that to kill it?"
Throckmorton licked his lips, "On the one hand, getting enough silver and being able to turn it into a weapon in time is going to be quite a trick in itself. I don't think that we have the time or the resources to undertake that kind of project. On the other hand, I don't think we should kill this creature anyway. If we think about it, this was once a human being, and I cannot condone killing it. Putting it under and looking it in a secure cage, yes; killing it, no."
Harper nodded, "I hadn't thought of that, sir."
"That's all right. Don't feel bad about it. Now remember, be quick about getting it locked up though, once you it is down, make sure that you can transport it to a secure area, and then stay well out of arms reach. This thing has killed several crew members, including their communications officer Danielpour."
"Malcolm's dead?" Harper seemed struck by some bolt from the blue with that remark.
"Unfortunately, yes. Rhodes saw him die."
Harper breathed deeply once, taking that in stride. He then became quite resolute, "When do we launch?"
"Pre-launch proceedings begin in five hours. You launch in six. It'll take just under two hours to reach the Pytheas. I suggest you get a couple hours of sleep between now and then, I don't know how long the operation is going to take, but you are not going to find any time to sleep, I can guarantee that."
Harper nodded again, "I know how that goes, sir. I'll brief my team, and then we shall get some rest for a few hours, then we shall conduct the pre-flight routine and we will double-check our arms."
"Good idea." Throckmorton agreed. "In this sort of situation, a malfunctioning rifle could cost you your life before you knew you had a problem."
Harper nodded gravely. Throckmorton though his nodding quite out of character, he was usually quite brash and disagreeable. Knowing the situation as intimately as he did however did provide him with some insight into why this man was so suddenly easily swayed. Harper was scared, something that shook any man or woman to the very core of their being. When scared they would try to hide it with false bravado, or perhaps a willingness to do what the person who seemed most calm suggested. Once Harper was used to the idea of a werewolf, then he would return to his old self. Probably after he got those couple hours of sleep.
"May I be excused to go talk with my men, Colonel?"
"Of course, I'll have things prepared for you while you and your team while you are sleeping." Throckmorton smiled. Harper gave a brisk salute and left MOCR at a quick pace. Major Brucker, who had been standing off to the side idly listening in to the conversation finally came back to Edward's side. His face was grave, but his lips did not reveal anything.
Throckmorton of course was not one to tolerate secrets, or premonitions. "What's bugging you, Major?"
Brucker equivocated at first, "Nothing really, sir, just worried about the men and women up there is all."
Throckmorton smiled at him, giving him that no-monkey-business look that had been so useful in developing his managerial style over the fifty-or-so-odd years he had been working. "Major, please don't insult my intelligence. We've been friends for what, ten years now? I think you can tell me what's going on in your mind."
Brucker gave him his you-got-me-pegged smile, his eyes revealing his embarrassment before breaking contact with Throckmorton completely. Brucker put his hands behind his back, clutching his wrist tightly as he stared out over the expanse of computer terminals and scientists all rushing to and fro to monitor and contain the dire situation. He pursed his lips thoughtfully for a moment, rocking back and forth gently as he collected his thoughts. "I think we're sending ten more people to their deaths, sir. I'm not sure if this is a good idea anymore."
"Well, if the werewolf is immune to everything but silver, then how can we presume the tranquilizer's will work? I mean, none of us has ever had experience with a werewolf before, sir. I remember seeing a werewolf movie when I was young, and nothing they did to the creature had any effect except for the silver bullet that finally killed it." Brucker still did not look at him, but kept staring at nothing in particular, as if he were looking past all that was around him and into the eyes of the beast himself.
"Like you said, we have no experience with dealing with werewolves. We need to do something though, and this is the best idea that we can come up with on short notice. If that doesn't work, then they just have to wait until the Pytheas passes out from under the full moon and then navigate the ship back to Earth. Either way, the werewolf problem is going to be taken care of in about twelve hours."
"No, it will only have just begun, because that person will be a werewolf still when the full moon comes around on Earth. What are we going to do, keep whoever it is locked up so that nobody can get hurt?"
"You might be surprised, the person who is the werewolf might have tried to do that already." Throckmorton pointed out, leaning against the metal bar behind him. He casually glanced up at the main screen, still seeing the Pytheas floating out between the new moon and the sun. The news that the Pytheas had gone drastically out of orbit had already made it to the press. However, that was something that the PR department could handle and explain. A werewolf? That was beyond him, he could think of nothing better to do than to deny all possible charges. Fortunately, they had gotten Mrs. Clarendon out of there before the news had become general knowledge to the staff of MOCR.
"Or," Brucker mused, "they might enjoy being the werewolf and hurting others. Why else would they deliberately take a flight that would set them in the path of the full moon for two months?"
Throckmorton did not have an answer to that one. It was something that had bugged him for some time now. Why would a werewolf take a flight that would leave him in his wolfen state for two months? Especially when that person knew how terrible and hideous he became on such occasions. If he or she enjoyed doing that sort of thing, if they enjoyed hurting and possibly killing others, then why not take such a trip? If that was the case, then it almost certainly had to be one of the Shapeshifters. It could be one of the scientists though. He just didn't know enough yet to come to a conclusion. Who the werewolf was would become evident in another eight to twelve hours. Until then, all he could do was speculate.
Suddenly, one of the workers came up to both of them carrying the radio extension, "Call from the Pytheas for you, Colonel."
Throckmorton thanked the man, and took the radio in his hands, "Colonel Throckmorton here."
"Edward, this is Rhodes." Rhodes sounded quite distressed about something, he could tell from the hesitancy in his voice. "We have hit a serious hitch in our plans."
The time lag was of course there, but Throckmorton could not help but flounder on such a declaration. "What's happened?" was all that he could manage after a few moments thought.
The silence before Rhodes was able to reply was excruciatingly long, and made Throckmorton's heart skip a beat in expectation. But his heart would nearly stop in terror when Rhodes finally spoke, "There is more than one werewolf on board this ship."
Throckmorton stared at Brucker, who too was shocked by this newest pronouncement. Neither man knew what to say, Brucker just shaking his head fatalistically. Perhaps he was right, perhaps he was sending Harper and his men up to die. Throckmorton wetted his lips slowly bringing the radio back up to speak. Even then it took him a moment to find his voice. "What did you say?"
This time there was no hesitancy in Rhodes's voice. Instead a certain amount of impatience was there, as if what Rhodes was saying should be common knowledge. "I said that there is more than one werewolf up here. We think there's at least four. And at the moment, I know who one of them is."
This time, the looks between Colonel and Major were at first startled, and then of slight excitement, perhaps they would not have to wait too long to find out who the werewolf was after all. "Who is it?"
"Mr. Max Dutton, the chief of security's right hand man." Rhodes said that with a bit of regret. "I must ask that you do not kill any of the werewolves, who knows how many more of them are bridge crew or are security officials. These people are my friends, and even after what happened here about ten minutes ago, still are."
Throckmorton nodded slowly, taking in the name, processing it, and letting it sink into his consciousness. So, there had been more than one werewolf on board. Max Dutton, how odd that he would be a werewolf. Especially since he had been with Rhodes the last time they had called. No, this wasn't right, there had to be more to it. There had to be something else going on here that Rhodes had yet to reveal.
Brucker managed to say it before he did, "The condition spreads it seems. Harper may arrive to find a ship full of werewolves."
"Rhodes, how did you find this out?"
He could hear that Rhodes had taken a deep breath before answering. "I watched him transform right before my eyes. I don't think I have ever seen anything quite so frightening than to see his anguish while it happened too."
"I'm sorry to hear that. I've already ordered Harper not to kill the werewolf. I'll just have to warm him that there will be at least four now."
"Harper? Your sending 'the stripe' to rescue us?"
" 'The stripe' happens to be one of the best men we have when it comes to pressure situations believe it or not." Throckmorton was a bit disappointed in Rhodes' use of that derogatory name to refer to Harper. Harper had been born with a slight genetic defect that left that white stripe down the left side of his head. It gave him a bizarre cast, but he did not seem to mind. Rhodes must be in severe distress to even think of referring to him by his Academy nickname.
"Well, be sure to tell him that he will be dealing with at least five werewolves then." Rhodes said it almost fatalistically, as if he were avoiding it, but somehow knew that he was going to have to reveal something important eventually.
Throckmorton caught the number, and was a bit confused by the change, "Five? I thought you said that you had counted four werewolves?"
"In another hour or so there will be a fifth."
"How do you know?"
"Because before I was able to eject Dutton from the Greenhouse, he scratched me across the chest. I am going to be the fifth werewolf." Rhodes said it with such conviction that it seems he had almost wanted it.
Throckmorton nearly dropped the radio. Brucker was similarly stunned, nearly slipping down to the floor in shock as he rocked back and forth. Throckmorton had no idea what he could say. Rhodes would certainly not lie about something as serious as this, nor would he have taken so long in coming around to it if it were true. This was not something one admitted lightly, even to oneself. Throckmorton could not imagine what sort of thoughts had passed through Rhodes's mind when he had realized his own fate. He was to join the ranks of the killers, and in all probable likelihood was going to be spending the remainder of his life locked up in a laboratory to be poked and prodded and eventually vivisected. He could not even fathom the tortures that would be placed upon him when it came time for the monthly change during the full moon.
He stared at Brucker, who was righting himself, his own hands shaking, raking through his hair in thought, trying to find some words that could possibly convey how he felt without sounding trite. Was there anything that could be said to Rhodes? Was there anyway in all that he could possibly tell him anything that he didn't already know? Rhodes must have spent time thinking about this, coming to grips with the reality of the situation. He was going to grow fur, claws, paws, and then go trying to eat humans, some of whom had once been friends. It was not a pleasant thought. How did one justify it to oneself? Obviously somebody who was a long time werewolf had to have some way to rationalize what happened to them once every twenty-eight days. Throckmorton had lived most of his life only worrying about bills that came about every month, and nothing else. To become a beast was something altogether different, and quite evidently, infinitely worse.
He put the radio up to his mouth again, and began to stutter, "I...I don't know.... I'm not sure what to...I don't know what I can say. I'm sorry?"
Rhodes came back quickly, his voice a bit down, but certainly more confidant than his own. "I understand, Edward. I'm not used to the idea myself, but it is something I'm going to have to face anyway. Don't worry about me. I should no longer be a concern. If necessary, kill me. I want you to worry more about saving the lives of the people still left on board here."
Throckmorton sighed. He bit his lip finally as he thought, what could he do? "Well, Rhodes, I'm going to try my darndest not to have you killed. I'll see what I can do. Who are you going to leave in charge up there?"
"I'm going to leave it with McGee, unless Kilpatrick or Penny shows up. Have you received any response from the transmission you sent directly to the engine room?"
Throckmorton shook his head, "I don't know yet, but I'll check." He pointed to Brucker, and gestured to him rather abruptly. Brucker instinctively knew what he meant, and quick-stepped over towards the communications console.
"I think I'll leave my gun with one of the scientists here. His name is Pierre Thibaudet, and I want you to communicate with him or McGee from now on. I don't know how much longer I'm going to last. I'll be leaving the moment I think I'm going to be more of a threat than anything else. Once that happens, McGee and Thibaudet are going to have the responsibility on this side. I'll give them the instructions they need, but I can't do anything more than that."
"I understand." Throckmorton replied, watching Brucker return from the console. Brucker was grimacing while shaking his head sadly. Throckmorton knew what that meant, and conveyed it immediately to his friend who was to be a werewolf. "They haven't responded yet, but they might not have noticed it."
Rhodes seemed a bit fatalistic, "I doubt it. They probably left the door open, and the werewolf got to them before they had a chance to do anything. I hope I don't kill anybody."
"Rhodes, just make sure that nobody compromises their security, and nothing more will happen."
"There are at least seven people that we haven't accounted for. They might already be dead, they might not be. I don't want to be responsible for their deaths."
"Rhodes, you won't be." Throckmorton replied. What else could he say?
"I hope you're right."
"I am. And trust me, you will not die either. The team I am sending up will tranquilize you and the other werewolves, and then lock you into cages for the trip back. I know that is humiliating, but I'm sure you can understand why we need to do it."
"Good. Is there anything else you need to tell me?"
"Not right now. If something changes, I'll call you back."
"I understand. If things change here I'll call you back as well."
"Here, let me introduce you to Pierre, since he will be doing the talking from here on out." Rhodes said, his voice neutral again.
There was a slight shuffling on the other end before a new voice emerged. "Hello, Colonel?"
"This is Colonel Throckmorton, who is this?" he replied, catching the slight French accent to the man's tongue.
"I'm Doctor Pierre Thibaudet. I guess I've been elected to talk to you."
In the background he heard Rhodes interrupt him, "Not elected, appointed."
Pierre continued, "I don't really know that much about being a leader, but I guess I'm going to discover the hard way."
"I'll help you out, Pierre. Don't worry, you are in good hands. Just do what Rhodes tells you to do and you'll be fine." Throckmorton tried to sound as encouraging as possible, but his voice rang hollow. This was not the time for good cheer, or for even false cheer. One of his friends was going to be less than human in another hour, and for that, he could never recover.
Rhodes was then back on the line, "I've got to talk with McGee now, so I'll get back in contact with you when I know what we are going to do."
Throckmorton bit his lip again. "I understand. I hope that when this is all over some way can be found to..." he left it hanging, he didn't have the stomach to say it.
"To find a cure?" Rhodes completed it for him. "That would be nice wouldn't it? I can only pray that one does get discovered. Over and out."
Throckmorton just passed the radio to Brucker, who held it for him as Throckmorton stared off into space himself. He tried to imagine Rhodes growing fur, paws, a muzzle and a tail. He could not superimpose the lupine image upon that portly man. Whether he liked it or not, such an image would be placed upon him, and not just in his mind, but in reality. His physical body would stretch, reorganize, and become like that of an animal. His mind would sink to a bestial level, unable to think on a higher plane. Such was the way of the werewolf. Would it spread further? Would Harper arrive to find a shuttle full of beasts?
Even though he had got to code, today was not turning out to be a good day after all.
He looked from one figure to the next. This was his pack, these were his packmates, and he was their alpha. It was right this way, and like a pack they thought together and worked together. The assault on the Greenhouse -- that word and image seemed to come to mind whenever he dwelled on the place that the humans had escaped to -- was proving fruitless, and would have to be abandoned for a time. They would go back to it, but not know, let them be for the moment. There were other more important matters to attend to.
His packmates were hungry. Though he had eaten, they had not.
Alan Ziegler lay on his bed, letting his wounded knees rest. When he rolled around they hurt quite painfully. However, most of the time it was just a dull throbbing. Whatever it was, he was certainly not going to exacerbate the situation by moving about too much. The walk back from Dr. Xenakis's infirmary had been painful, even with the crutches. The painkillers had been effective for about thirty feet, and then he'd winced with every step.
Of course, what he'd heard over the radio had been enough to convince him not to get up from his bed ever again. A werewolf? What a crazy idea, but apparently it was out there, and from what Rhodes had said when he had talked with him over an hour ago was that it had killed Danielpour. He had suffered the pain of getting up then to lock his door. Since then, he had not moved. He had heard on one occasion a pounding on his door, and he had lain there tensely gripping the sides of his magazines. Some people thought he only had Playboy, but they were wrong. He also had Hustler, the American Spectator, Science News, and National Geographic. He liked to think of himself as well read.
The current article in Science News was discussing the latest three-dimensional minimal curve that was continuos, and a few other mathematical terms that he didn't understand. He did not usually grasp most of the things he read in Science News, but they were always interesting to hear about. Plus, some of the pictures were quite pretty and sometimes startling.
Suddenly, he heard that pounding sound on his door again. He looked up at it, his breath coming quickly, shallowly as his arms shook. He reached for his gun, knowing that it would do him no good if they came into this room. The beating stopped suddenly, just as it had the time before. Instead another sound came to his ears, the sound of the clicking of toenails on the floor outside his door. Then he heard a sullen chiming, and the lock on his door turned off. He sat up immediately, the pain in his legs no longer a concern.
The door slid open, and before him was the most gruesome sight he had ever witnessed. Not just one, but at least six of them. He began pulling his trigger, firing into the one in front, it falling to the side, but they kept coming at him, and in moments were on top of him. He felt the pain as the one closest to him sunk its jaws into his chest, his arms flying to the side, the gun knocked from his hand. He fell limply back across the bed, as the other werewolves crowded around him, ripping the flesh from his bones. He lost all sensation after seconds, the will to fight gone from him.
Ziegler stared into the sky, his magazines forgotten, the werewolves forgotten, the fact that he was dying, and soon to be dead forgotten. Those red stains on the ceiling were very interesting, he wondered what they were. He kept on wondering for a few moments until his eyes glazed over with blackness.
End Part XI