“Video paused. Deactivating holographic theater display.”
Eva Velas blinked as the holograms around her faded, revealing the bright infirmary. She rubbed her brown eyes but was careful not to disturb the needle in her arm.
“Done already, Doc?” she said to the other woman in the room. “I just got to the best part.”
Dr. Jennifer Naloo approached the table and smiled. “Sorry, you’ll have to finish your movie later. Besides, I’d better get that needle out before it drains you. Don’t wanna be too weak for today.”
With the needle gone, Eva quickly healed. She readjusted herself on the table until her legs dangled over the edge, suddenly aware of how cold the infirmary felt, especially in her black tank top and bare feet.
“Thanks for the donation,” Dr. Naloo said. “I should be able to make plenty of Alopex, so you can make yourself comfortable.”
“Finally!” Eva said.
The young woman concentrated, and began her transformation. She addressed her hands and feet first, developing off-white fur that dominated her clawed digits. Once fully coated, she resembled an upright, Mexican grey wolf. Thanks to loose clothing, she didn’t worry about rips, even as her tail grew. When Eva neared the end of her transformation, her head and face underwent the most dramatic lupine changes, but she was finally herself again.
“Much better,” she said. As if to punctuate the moment, the doctor’s communicator chirped.
Dr. Naloo pulled back her lab coat sleeve and revealed a device wrapped around her wrist. The screen flashed until she tapped it, opening the message. “Ah, not a moment too soon,” she remarked. “We’re dropping out of shiftspace and Captain wants everyone on the bridge.”
Eva donned a pair of devices similar to the doctor’s, along with matching armbands. All four units harmonized and projected a chest-level holoscreen. “Katalyst Communications Inc. Holographic Omni-Wear Link… Welcome, Eva Velas, CCC Fairplains ship engineer. One message.”
“Got the howl too,” Eva said, closing the message with a paw motion. “Skookum, Doc, great timing.”
“You’d better head up, I’ll join in a sec.”
Eva nodded and headed for the infirmary door and made her way to center of the Habitation Module. Centrifugal forces kept her paws planted on the curved floor. She reached the common area and picked a ladder to the central hatch. The artificial gravity weakened the closer she came to the hatch, and was completely gone once she entered the corridor to the Command Module. Before she floated down the passage, someone called out from behind.
“Hey Caleb!” Eva said from the hatch, “I’ll pull ya in.”
The young man scampered up a ladder and jumped. His blue flight suit billowed as he reached for Eva. She caught his hand and dragged him in expertly.
“Thanks,” Caleb said. “So how’s your morning been?”
“Not too bad. I watched half of Star Wolves 2 and helped Doc with some Alopex,” Eva said.
“Ha! I haven’t seen that in forever,” Caleb replied. “It’s pretty skookum, as far as old movies go. We’ll have to finish it later; maybe on movie night?”
“Sounds good!” Eva agreed. “So how about you?”
Caleb smiled and said, “Lemme show you.” He tapped his own HOWL, entering commands. Immediately, his projectors displayed a hologram of a man with square glasses, red hair, and a beard. “Or rather, let us show you.”
“Mornin’ DAVE,” Eva said.
“Good morning Eva,” the hologram replied. “I see you’re still floating. Let me take care of that.” Panels along the corridor hummed to life. Suddenly, Eva felt a force on her shoulders, pushing her towards the designated floor. Her paws touched down and she took an experimental step.
“Hey, you fixed DAVE’s lev parameters!” she said.
“Yep! I added some features too,” Caleb said.
“Nice work,” Eva said. “But if it’s cool with you DAVE, I’d like to stay airborne.”
DAVE nodded. “No problem. I mapped commands to your HOWL to change lev direction. They’re quite simple.”
“Skookum, sounds fun!” Eva said, wagging her tail. She tapped the controls and floated again. “And I’ll see you at the bridge!” she said to Caleb, launching herself down the corridor.
Caleb shrugged at DAVE and disabled arti-grav too. “Eh, what the heck, right?” he said, floating after Eva.
They arrived at the bridge to find the rest of the crew already present. Mr. Ganesh was strapped into the pilot’s seat with the executive officer, Mr. Rodriguez, in the copilot’s position. Captain Gale Rawlins monitored from her command seat, checking the condition of the ship and her crew. The security officer, Mark Shepplehorn, sat to her right and tried to hide his discomfort as Fairplains dropped out of shiftspace.
Pinpricks of light came into focus, becoming a starfield behind the windows. The image of a planet solidified too, but it was still too far to make out any details besides its ashen color. “Shiftspace drop successful Captain,” Ganesh announced.
Eva and Caleb reported in, letting everyone know Dr. Naloo would join them shortly. With a safe arrival, Captain Rawlins unbuckled herself and addressed the crew with her HOWL providing briefing visuals.
“A few days ago, we received a distress call from another Cascadia Colonial Commission ship orbiting Planet WV-04.” She threw copies of her holographic model to everyone’s HOWLs. “CCC Leskavac is a passenger transport, with 200 colonists in cryohibernation. It’s a newer ship, so once we’re in range DAVE will download additional schematics.”
“Do we know what’s wrong?” Eva inquired.
Captain Rawlins shook her head. The crew studied the distressed ship as they approached. Once in range, DAVE and Rodriguez hailed Leskavac. “CCC Leskavac, this is CCC Fairplains responding. Over.” Rodriguez repeated his message twice. “Leskavac, we are broadcasting on all frequencies, do you read? Over.” He looked at Capt. Rawlins and then to DAVE’s hologram. “Can you connect to their systems and give us a camera feed?”
DAVE nodded. “This is the bridge…”
A holoscreen appeared and showed the bridge empty. DAVE cycled through cameras but couldn’t find anyone. Some cameras only showed darkness while others flickered. “No motion detected,” DAVE said. “By my analysis, the ship is abandoned.”
“Bring up the logs,” Capt. Rawlins ordered.
“Sorry Captain,” Dave said, “Major portions of their databanks are unavailable. Detecting intranetwork problems and their AI is corrupted or offline.”
“I don’t like this,” Shepplehorn growled, finally saying what everyone was thinking. “What the hell happened to them?”
“Further data must be accessed locally,” DAVE advised, “There’s nothing more we can do from here.”
“Then we have our mission,” the Captain said, “Find their data, find the crew, and find out what happened.” The crew nodded. “In, out, gone. I want this safe and simple,” she continued, “Textbook.”
“Aye, Captain!” everyone but Eva replied.
Everything about the situation sent up red flags, and she knew exactly where she’d seen these circumstances before. It seemed impossible, but she thought it foolish to ignore her fears. She flattened her ears and softly replied as well. “Aye, Captain.”
“Hey Eva, Captain said she wants this textbook, not comic book!” Caleb said as the away team gathered in the shuttle hangar.
Eva faced him, thinking he must have spotted the handle of her invention poking out of her gear bag. The werewolf removed the device, which resembled Capt. Romulus’ electrolaser from the Star Wolves movies. “Ya like it?” she asked.
“Yeah, but what’s it do? Disintegrate aliens?”
“It’s a universal remote I finished yesterday,” Eva said. “With their net down, I figured it may be useful.” She stashed the remote and grabbed the large repair tool slung over her right shoulder. “This one’s for fighting aliens.”
“A patchworker? What’d you do to it?”
“Ya know, my usual tweaks,” Eva said casually.
Just then, Shepplehorn floated into the hangar. “I hope you’re not weaponizing our tools again,” he said. “I’m sure there’s some company rule you’re violating.”
Eva chuckled. “When you’re fending off space squids with nothing but a multibar, Shep, you’ll come around.”
“Then it’s good ‘space squids’ aren’t real. This situation is serious, and I need to do my job without worrying about your jerry-rigged contraptions exploding in my face.”
“I never said this wasn’t serious,” Eva defended, “I’m just scared it may be worse.”
“What? You don’t actually think aliens or something are responsible?” Shepplehorn scoffed.
Caleb shrugged and added, “Could be space zombies…”
Shepplehorn shot him a glare. “What is it with you two and your insistence on bringing fiction to an environment that demands professionalism?” he asked.
“If I recall correctly,” Eva began. “Last week it was you who said, ‘Close your comic book and help me, I think the AI is trying to kill us.’” Eva gave Shepplehorn a grin. “That was a thing you said. To me. A werewolf. In space.” A moment passed in silence with Caleb suppressing a laugh. “Forty years ago that scenario would have been fiction, and 150 years ago those Supremacy War movies you like would’ve been just as fictional. All I’m saying is it pays to leave room for a imagination, especially when the universe can change in second.”
To Eva’s surprise, Shepplehorn didn’t object. He merely sighed and said, “We’ll talk about this later. For now, just be careful with those things and stay alert. If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that something strange is going on.”
Eva and Caleb nodded and boarded the shuttle. Not long after, Dr. Naloo, Rodriguez, and Ganesh arrived for takeoff. Everyone activated their quicksuits before sitting. Sleek backpacks connected to skeletal frames effortlessly contoured to everyone’s bodies, forming customized suits.
The shuttle hatch closed and the craft adjusted its internal pressure. Dim holographic controls appeared over Eva’s forearms over where her HOWL units were under the suit. She notified the Captain of the away team’s status.
“Copy that,” Captain Rawlins said from the bridge. “I’m bringing us in close.” A moment passed. “Debris defenses active,” Captain Rawlins said as she and DAVE guided Fairplains. “Skies are clear, and orbit stabilized Mr. Ganesh. You’re clear.”
“Solid copy, Captain,” the pilot said. The hangar depressurized and opened its doors. With expert grace, the shuttle glided into open space.
Trillions of specks dominated the view from the shuttle, even with the grey surface of the planet looming beside them. While some spacefarers could grow bored of such a sight, Eva found that impossible. Even with the strangeness of the emergency, Eva couldn’t help but reveal a toothy smile behind her visor.
The shuttle swooped around Leskavac and scanned the hull. Thankfully for the rescue crew, the hull was mostly intact. The transport ship was longer than Fairplains by a few hundred meters. Caleb whistled in amazement. “Swanky gig they got there,” he said as the shuttle found a place to land. “Definitely newer than us.”
“It didn’t seem to do them much good,” Shepplehorn said. “They got skooked over just the same.”
To the crew’s surprise, Leskavac’s hangar doors were wide open yet every shuttle was secured to the deck. Ganesh eased his craft inside and landed.
Shepplehorn updated the captain as the team disembarked. While Caleb plugged his HOWL into a terminal to sync DAVE, Eva floated towards the shuttles. She surveyed the scene and quickly noticed a pattern. “Hey, check out their shuttles,” she said, “All the engines are wrecked.” The werewolf eased herself closer. “Looks like someone took a plasma torch and melted holes in ‘em.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Rodriguez said, “If there was an emergency, why destroy survival assets?”
No one knew what to say except Shepplehorn. “I don’t know, but we know where we’ll find out. Caleb? DAVE?”
“Schematics downloaded,” Caleb said. “DAVE mapped a route to the bridge.”
“Good,” Shepplehorn said. “Let’s head out. Ganesh, stay with the shuttle and howl if anything comes up.”
“Will do,” the pilot said. “Just be quick, please. This place looks worse than I imagined.”
The airlock linking the hangar to the rest of the ship was still functional, but the crew still kept their suits sealed when they reached the inner ship. Eva bounded along the corridors with her patchworker slung over one shoulder and her gear bag over the other. Her eyes scanned the patches of darkness caused by damaged lights, but there weren’t any signs of the crew.
Caleb pulled himself past her and fiddled with a wall-mounted computer terminal. With DAVE connected to their particular section of the ship, the AI attempted to restore arti-grav. Lev panels in the designated ceiling of the corridor reactivated and forced everyone down. The technician and AI continued this process as the crew approached the bridge. However, as they progressed, they noticed more damage in the corridors. It wasn’t enough to draw any conclusions, but when they opened a hatch to a chamber just before the bridge, they found a trove of evidence.
Clusters of supply crates drifted through the chamber before the arti-grav reengaged. The crates were crudely welded together but upon closer inspection, the crew found them marred by some kind of claw marks. Eva examined her own gloved paws and scratched a crate experimentally. The marks were different.
“I’ve got projectile damage over here!” Shepplehorn said, pointing at a pockmarked wall. “Looks like stun slugs.” He picked at a mound of gelatin clumped to the metal, freeing it.
“Riot control?” Dr. Naloo inquired. “These look like barricades, so maybe there was a mutiny?”
Shepplehorn furrowed his brow. “Let’s find out.”
In the bridge, Eva and Caleb discovered Leskavac was locked into a stable orbit and the SOS was the only recent outgoing transmission. After a moment with the bridge computers, Caleb cursed and kicked the console. “I’ve got good news and bad, bordering on weird, news,” he said. “Leskavac has power and stable atmosphere. We can get anywhere in the ship without suits, so we can let them recharge for now.” He deactivated his quicksuit and continued while everyone deactivated their suits. “The bad news is someone removed the bridge’s storage drive.”
“So the data’s gone?” Eva asked.
“Thankfully no,” Caleb said. “If we can find that drive, we’ll have everything.”
“Great, any idea where it is?” Rodriguez asked.
Caleb shrugged but Eva had an idea. She pulled up the cameras and scanned their live images, toggling past dark feeds like those in the engineering decks. At last, she settled on the infirmary where a red box rested on a gurney. “Is that it?”
“Yep, that’s it,” Caleb said. “How’d you-?”
“I noticed it when DAVE first checked their cams,” Eva replied.
“Well done,” Shepplehorn said, with a nod. Eva grinned but it was short-lived as movement on the holoscreen caught her attention.
A woman in a tattered medical uniform waved her arms at the camera. Her face was slightly smeared with blood, as were her sleeves. “Look!” Eva exclaimed. “A crewmember!”
“Good, now we can finally get some answers,” Shepplehorn said, “Come on.”
The infirmary door reluctantly slid open after Rodriguez forced it with his multibar. Immediately, the woman latched onto his leg, sobbing. The officer comforted her and asked her about the emergency.
“You have to save them!” the woman blurted. “The pods! They’re all that’s left. Module sealed, to keep them safe. It’s just-” The crew wanted more, but she was fixated on the hibernation module.
“You should take her back, Doc,” Shepplehorn suggested.
“He’s right,” Caleb added. “We have the drive so we’ll know everything soon enough.”
“Perfect,” Rodriguez said. “Caleb, you and Shep see what you can find. Eva and I will check the hibernation modules.”
After administering a dose of Alopex, Dr. Naloo helped the survivor to the shuttle before Eva and Rodriguez left the infirmary. Eva paused to sniff the air. She detected something off in the stale atmosphere. While part of her blamed the malfunctioning air filtration system, she still added the feeling to her list of evidence. With Shepplehorn turned away, Eva locked eyes with Caleb, opened her gear bag, and left a nailgun on a gurney by the door.
“You okay?” Rodriguez asked Eva as they approached the first hibernation module.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m skookum,” Eva said.
“Really? ‘Cause you keep sniffing around and your ears twitch. Is there something I should know about?”
Eva paused. “I thought I heard something moving in the walls, but it’s gone.” The XO looked spooked, so Eva added, “I know Shep thinks I’m crazy, but I brought another modded nailgun, if you want it.”
“That’s alright. I’m sure there’s a logical explan-” The XO’s words froze in his throat. His flashlight hovered over the remnants of Module 1’s doors. Deep scratches marked the metal, instantly prompting him to accept Eva’s offer.
Eva led the way, senses alert. Claw marks, used stun slugs, and other damage scarred the floor and walls but worse destruction lay further inside. All 100 cryopods were destroyed and empty, with gaping holes in their canopies.
“They’re…” Rodriguez stuttered.
Eva found shattered polyglass inside the pods, but not a single sign of the occupants. “These pods were broken into. Captain? Shep? You seein’ this?”
Their faces appeared via HOWL, and they were visibly unnerved. “Affirmative,” Captain Rawlins sighed.
“Caleb and DAVE are decrypting the drive now,” Shepplehorn said to mask his unease. “Check the other module.”
When they reached the second module’s hatch, they found it similarly clawed but fused shut. Eva asked DAVE to patch into the cameras again, but he said the cameras were no longer linked to the ship. “As a detachable module, certain systems are only connected to Leskavac wirelessly.”
“Wirelessly, you say?” Eva grabbed her universal remote, calibrated it with her HOWL, and aimed into the module. A holographic laser blast flew from the remote as it played a suitable sound effect. Images from inside the module appeared, and Eva grinned wolfishly. “They’re okay!”
Rodriguez exhaled heavily. “How many?”
“All 100! Humans, werewolves, we have 100 survivors!”
The crew voiced their relief as well but another sound drew Eva’s attention. Now she was sure she heard movement.
“Alright, let’s open it,” Rodriguez said, stashing the nailgun and preparing his plasma torch. He activated his suit for protection and started to cut.
Eva stood back and peered into the hallway. Doubts crept into her mind as her instincts screamed a warning and her hackles rose. Rodriguez was almost through the outer hatch when Eva told him to stop. Confused, the XO obeyed but it was too late.
A metallic thump echoed down the hallway, followed by rapid footsteps. Through the gloom, Eva saw a faint yellow glow approaching fast. With her sensitive eyes, Eva soon realized the glow was coming from inside an animal of some sort. She dropped her remote and tried to bring her patchworker to bear. She was too slow.
Eva tumbled to the ground as the creature slammed into her legs. Her attacker whipped around and went for her throat, only to be caught mid-lunge. Inches from her muzzle, she gazed into the black eyes and canine features of her adversary. She clamped its jaws shut and tore into its neck with her teeth.
The creature whined as Eva threw it off and spit out the flesh. The taste was unnaturally metallic. She regained her footing and wiped silvery blood from her muzzle. After her counterattack, she guessed it was only a matter of seconds before the creature bled out. To her surprise, it did not.
The pallid skin around the animal’s neck reformed and it readied itself to reengage. Eva snarled and repelled every lunge. Finding no success, the creature retreated and stood still for a moment. Deformations appeared on its hairless back until four tentacles sprouted.
“What the-” Rodriguez began, raising his plasma cutter.
Eva dodged the first tentacle but the second sliced her across the leg. She grabbed the tentacle and ripped it off. Her companion tried to do the same, slicing limbs with his tool. The creature retaliated with its last tentacle and managed to disarm Rodriguez. Eva clawed the creature’s back, removing the final appendage.
“It can regen!” Eva warned.
Thinking quickly, Rodriguez reached for the nailgun. With Eva holding the monster down, he drove nails into each limb, pinning it to the floor but the creature refused to die.
Through its skin, Eva saw the light glow brighter. Before it could regenerate, she tore at the light until she found a crystalline organ. She crushed it in her paws and the creature instantly melted into a silver puddle. Each of the tentacles the crewmembers ripped off also liquefied.
Eva panted and tapped her HOWL. “So, did you get all that?”
The rest of the crew couldn’t believe Eva’s footage but before they could discuss what happened, Shepplehorn reported movement. Before DAVE sealed the infirmary doors, a pair of creatures made it inside, although they looked nothing like the animal Eva encountered.
“We have to help them!” Eva said.
Rodriguez pointed down the hall at two figures. “I think we have our own problems!”
“Fuse the hatch,” Eva said, disabling her patchworker’s safety programming. “I’ll deal with them.”
Holographic sights appeared above the tool and Eva settled them on the first figure. To her surprise, the new creature wasn’t completely alien to her, and in the moment before squeezing the trigger she felt a twinge of recognition.
A patching canister zipped from the tool and imbedded itself in the figure’s scaly torso. It clawed at the object with its webbed hands to no avail as the orange foam expanded violently. The yellow crystal inside the amphibian creature was forced out, and landed by Eva. She crushed it, melting what remained of the creature.
Eva turned her attention to the second figure as it lumbered into the light. Unlike the other attackers, this figure was mechanical. However, with its rectangular body and arms made of ventilation tubing, Eva almost laughed at the robot. She dispatched it easily enough, but it only raised more questions.
But Eva had to wait for answers as the ship came alive with the clamor of an angry swarm. “Hurry! More incoming!” she said.
“Almost there!” Rodriguez replied.
Within seconds, another wave of assailants entered the area. Eva dropped her tool bag and leveled her patchworker again. “DAVE, I need control of the lev panels in front of me, and I could use a little help on this one.”
“Done,” the AI confirmed.
This time, the creatures charged without caution, attempting to overwhelm the werewolf with sheer force. They came in many forms; reptilian, insectoid, robotic, mammalian, and even bizarre hybrids. Their bodies ranged in size and colors, although a few appeared monochromatic, as if they stepped from the scenes of an early 20th century film. A quarter of them fell to Eva’s contraption before she ran out of canisters.
With no time to reload, Eva dropped the tool. “Looks like we’re doing this the hard way!” She used the arti-grav to disorient the creatures, eviscerating one at a time. DAVE increased the lev panel power, pinning creatures to the floor, walls, or ceiling. The creatures could eventually break free, but it balanced the odds.
Limbs and globules of silvery liquid floated through the hallway as Eva fought. “Any time now!” she barked.
“Got it!” Rodriguez shouted. He grabbed the nailgun and whirled around, only to get jumped by a cephalopod that escaped Eva. It clamped its tentacles to his helmet but a few nails fired dangerously close to his head killed the beast. Another creature slipped by Eva and targeted the XO. The lizard-like alien wrestled him to the ground, knocking away the nailgun. “Eva, help!”
Before Eva could assist, an alien canine leapt onto her back, keeping her occupied. Desperate, Rodriguez flailed in search of a weapon until his hand touched Eva’s tool bag. He grabbed the first object he felt; the remote. Without thinking, he pointed the device at the lizard’s head and fired.
The creature was instantly liquefied, crystalline heart and all. Quickly, Rodriguez fired again at the creatures. With a faux laser discharge, every alien melted spectacularly.
Eva cleaned her clothes and fur as best she could, retrieved her gear, and dashed back to the infirmary with Rodriguez in tow.
“Did you see that?!” he said, still holding the remote. “How the hell did that work?!”
“I don’t know,” Eva said. “But we’ll figure it out after we save Shep and Caleb!”
To their relief, their crewmates were still alive. Shepplehorn clutched a fluid-stained multibar as he caught his breath. Behind him, Caleb searched through storage cabinets while holograms of the ship’s log followed him.
“Are you okay?” Eva asked.
“Skookum,” Shepplehorn sighed, wiping blood from his cheek. He pointed to the puddle at his feet with his tool. “That bastard clipped my Alopex pack before I could dose. Caleb dosed before they broke his too.”
Eva and Rodriguez examined their own Alopex cases and cursed upon finding them damaged too.
“It’s like they knew what to hit,” Shepplehorn mused. “But the rest doesn’t make sense. Intelligent organisms? Actual aliens? And what are the skookin’ odds they look like that?”
Caleb was eager to answer. “Mine wasn’t an alien per se.” The crew turned to him, confused. “The creature I fought looked exactly like a bug from Mutant Mantis-Men.” Everyone but Eva gave him a blank stare. “The 2073 movie?” DAVE appeared and displayed an example of the film’s poster next to a recording of Caleb’s fight. The creatures were identical. “And Shep fought the monster from 2088’s The Bog!”
Eva recognized the pattern and added, “We got swarmed by everything from a 1940’s robot to the alien from The Dark Nebula. The older creatures were even black and white, like they appeared in their films.”
“You’re telling me those things are from movies?” Shepplehorn asked.
The werewolf nodded. “And really any media from the last two centuries.”
“Okay, just fan-skookin’-tastic!” Shepplehorn said. “But that doesn’t answer how they got here! How is any of this real?!”
Once again, Caleb had an answer. He asked DAVE to help him with holographic visuals. Over the next few minutes, the technician and the AI recounted Leskavac’s fate.
“They followed an unusual signal to this planet. Shuttle flyovers suggest it once teemed with life but the surface was desolate, except for a single creature. The crew brought it onboard and experiments revealed the organism was half artificial, made of billions of nanobots. Too late, they learned it could feed on organic and inorganic materials and replicate. Worse yet, new creatures can form themselves into whatever they see. The creatures copied the werewolf crewmembers and...”
“Started killing…” Eva finished, “And when they found our data libraries… All the inspiration they could want.”
No one spoke. Leskavac’s crew outnumbered them. If that many failed, what chance do we have? What makes us any different? The thought haunted everyone except Eva.
“Then we still have a mission to finish,” she said, tucking her ears back. Shepplehorn started to object, but stopped at her feral glare. “We have a hundred survivors counting on us now, and maybe all of Earth.”
“Earth?” Rodriguez asked.
“If I know my fiction,” Eva said, “and I do, those things know about Earth, the colonies, and the billions of lifeforms on the menu. We can’t let them escape. The crew knew that.”
“What do you suggest? Scuttle Leskavac, let ‘em burn up in the atmo?” Shepplehorn said. “Would planetfall even work?”
At that, Caleb and Eva looked to each other again. “We nuke the site from orbit,” Eva said, “It’s the only way to be sure.”
“Okay, I’m a fan of overkill here, but where are we gonna get a nuke?” Rodriguez asked.
“We’re flying in one,” Caleb said. “It’s gonna be close, it’s gonna be dangerous, and it’s even gonna be bit insane, but we know just what to do.”
Minutes later, Eva and Rodriguez clung to the side of the freed Hibernation Module as Ganesh swooped in with his shuttle and its robotic arms. He guided the module towards the Fairplains ribcage to secure it for travel. A horde of creatures gave chase but Eva’s raygun remote was still mysteriously effective at disintegrating the creatures. With a window of opportunity, Rodriguez entered the module and swept the remote across every pod, making sure no creatures were aboard.
Before Eva could relax, Caleb called saying he was under attack. He and Shepplehorn used the rescue as a distraction to rig the reactors to overload. Unfortunately, with the module out of reach, the creatures turned their attention to them.
The shuttle docked the module, left Rodriguez to secure it, and raced to retrieve Caleb and Shepplehorn. Eva jumped off when they reached the hangar, ran to the airlock, and opened it to only find Caleb.
“Shep lured them away!” Caleb gasped. “He said to leave him! This place goes supernova in fifteen minutes! There’s no way!”
“DAVE?” Eva said, dismissing Caleb.
“He’s in the infirmary,” DAVE announced.
“Plot me a route via the maintenance passages,” she said to DAVE before turning to Caleb. “Get clear! I’ll find another way out.”
Caleb knew better than to argue as Eva deactivated her suit, gave him her patchworker, and shifted back into human form. She slipped into the tiny maintenance hatch, leaving her friend to hope against all odds of seeing her again.
Three creatures pounded on the infirmary door while Shepplehorn bled against a table. The nailgun he took from Caleb only had two nails, and it hurt to swing his multibar. HOWL damaged, his coms were down but he could still access holographs of his grandchildren. He smiled weakly at the pups before the hatch failed.
“Come on, ya skookin’ bastards,” he coughed. The first two creatures, a pair of lizardmen, took a nail each and melted. Shepplehorn raised his tool against the last alien, a squid-like specimen sliding toward him.
As the squid prepared to strike, Eva crashed through the ceiling hatch, half-transformed. She ripped the crystal from the squid and destroyed it. She helped Shepplehorn to his feet.
“Listen, I wanna apologize-” he started.
“Shep, it’s okay, I understand,” Eva said. “Besides, we can talk more when we’re not about to explode.”
“Right. But there’s still a swarm out there, and I’m short a weapon.”
“I can help with that,” DAVE said, appearing from Eva’s HOWL. “But there’s something else you should see.” He loaded a video of the infirmary and the survivor carrying a powertool. She frantically fiddled with it but abandoned it as her assailants arrived. To Eva’s surprise, the woman shifted into a werewolf and dispatched many creatures before being overwhelmed. DAVE advanced the feed until it showed a creature consume the werewolf and morph into the form of the woman they saved. Eva contacted Fairplains nanoseconds later.
Caleb answered. “We know! The remote’s not melting her! She’s different somehow-” his voice cut off.
Shepplehorn searched where he saw the tool land in the video and discovered it was an improvised flamethrower. Made from repair tools and medical equipment, it was crude but sufficient. “The rulebooks never covered this stuff,” Shepplehorn coughed, “So I’m followin’ your lead.”
Growls grew in volume as the swarm approached. Eva knew the aliens craved new, deadly forms so with DAVE’s help, she gave them what they wanted. She removed a HOWL armband and let DAVE guide it with microgravity and lev controls. He rendered holographic werewolves of every shape until there was a pack of monsters too tempting for the aliens to ignore. DAVE assumed a short-muzzled form himself, ready to act.
Shipwide speakers hummed to life as DAVE played Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and the trio started their escape. The swarm soon met them, targeting DAVE’s illusions. Timed overcharges of lev panels created the impression the holograms were really fighting, improving Eva and Shepplehorn’s chances. Flames and claws flew while the music played and globs of vanquished aliens coated the walls.
“Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity!” the speakers blared as Eva used lev panels and microgravity to outmaneuver larger opponents. Every dimension became an angle of attack for the inspired wolf as she carved a path to freedom.
In the hangar, Eva and Shepplehorn searched for an escape. With the last of the creatures occupied by the digital pack, Eva found a pair of exorigs complete with lev thrusters in a shuttle. They attached the rigs to their suits. Eva locked her rig’s robot arms to Shepplehorn’s, took the flamethrower, and the pair leapt through the open hangar door. She fired the last of the weapon’s fuel and boosted them home.
“Oh, I'm burnin' through the sky yeah!”
Captain Rawlins swung her multibar at the former survivor. The tool glanced off the creature’s maw harmlessly and the beast cackled. “You foolish meatbags! We are no weak drone, we are the ultimate lifeform! We are the Queen! You freed us from that rock and gave us new forms! Soon we will have our revenge on the galaxy! But first, you die!”
The Queen stepped toward the Captain on lupine paws and whipped her tentacles menacingly. Silver saliva dripped from her jaws as the rest of the wounded crew looked on in horror.
“Get away from her, you bitch!” Everyone turned to see Eva in her rig-enhanced suit.
“You!” the Queen snarled, “You should be dead!”
“Sorry to break from your script,” Eva said, “It was alright, too. The setup, the trap, the goons with a convenient weakness, all of it. You learned a lot from our library, didn’t you? There’s just one problem.” The Queen started towards Eva. “The ending sucks.”
Taking the bait, the Queen chased Eva into the hangar. They fought in microgravity, ricocheting off the walls, unable to land effective blows. All the while, Eva taunted the creature and bragged about defeating her monster minions.
“Miserable creature!” the Queen said as she grabbed Eva from behind. “You may have killed them, but you can’t kill me!”
Eva entered a command on her HOWL. “Wasn’t gonna kill you,” she said, touching a hologram. “Just needed to stall you.”
In an instant, the exorig arms snapped back and hugged the alien werewolf as the thrusters activated, pushing the combatants apart. Shepplehorn emerged from his hiding place, his suit tethered to a docked shuttle. As Eva fought, he quietly sealed and pressurized the hangar. He grabbed Eva’s paw and opened the hangar doors.
Anything unsecured was ejected. With robotic arms pinning all its limbs, there was nothing the Queen could do to avoid tumbling head over tail into space. No one could hear the screams.
“Shift us outta here DAVE!” Eva said. Moments remained on the reactors’ countdown timer but DAVE brought Fairplains into shiftspace just in time. The ship dropped out seconds later, and hundreds of kilometers away from Leskavac as it exploded. Eva’s visor darkened, granting her a final look. Soon after, the doors shut and the weary werewolf helped Shepplehorn inside for medical attention.
“Skookin’ hell, are you okay?!” Caleb said once they made it inside.
“Never better!” Eva barked, still slightly buzzing from surviving the climax of her own personal adventure.
Shepplehorn grunted. “Yeah, no, still only human,” he moaned. “I’m gonna need an Alopex or ten.”
It was a shared sentiment as the crew gathered. They were bruised and bloody, but they were alive, thanks to each other.
“I’m proud of everyone,” Captain Rawlins said. “I know it looked impossible, but I’m glad we had the right wolf in the wrong place.”
“After what just happened, I think Eva should make the plans for the rest of today,” Captain Rawlins said, “We have a long day of paperwork tomorrow.” Everyone looked to Eva.
“I say lick our wounds, make repairs, and start a movie night,” Eva declared. “I gotta train everyone for next time.”
“Hopefully there won’t be a ‘next time,’” Shepplehorn said.
“Trust me,” Eva said, “There will.”
THE END… ?