In the forest glade that Healer Skoll called his 'consulting office', Hatti made herself as comfortable as she could, given the state of her nerves. The non-sentient autonurse waited unobtrusively in the shadow of a larch tree, ready to assist the Healer if required. As the light from the setting sun faded, the gentle blue illumination emitted by the 'nurse became brighter and brighter.
Healer Skoll was turned away from her, and was fussing about with a long, thin bundle that she couldn't see clearly. A faint, sharp smell of oil and chemicals reached her nose, a smell that seemed strangely familiar.
"You must excuse me, a most disturbing development, but you don't need to know about that," the Healer muttered, and turned to face her. "Now, then, young Hatti, how can I help you? What seems to be the problem?"
"I need your help, Healer. Something I can't explain is happening to me- something I can barely describe, because I can't remember it clearly. I suppose you might call it some sort of blackout."
"A blackout, my dear? That sort of thing can be very worrying, and sometimes it is a symptom of something serious, but you must be aware that modern medical treatment is extremely effective. I'm sure that my nurse and I can help you. Tell me everything you can remember."
"It started two nights ago. At first I thought I was just sleepwalking- I woke up twice, a couple of hundred metres deep in the forest, with no idea how I had got there. The third time I was awake, and I felt it coming on - like slipping into a trance - everything went quiet, like I was going deaf, and the colours - everything started to look different. Then, I woke up again, maybe half a kilometre away. When I got back I checked the time - I must have been wandering about for half an hour."
"You felt the onset of this trance? Interesting. How did you feel when you woke up? Any pains, headaches? Blurred vision?"
"My body felt like it had been stretched and twisted out of shape, then twisted back again. I couldn't sleep any more that night, but I slept a little in the day - I was exhausted. Then last night the same happened - but this time I was awake all night. The same sort of pattern - I lost a few minutes at a time, then there was an hour or so when I lost consciousness completely. I came to my senses, on my feet, staggering back from - somewhere, with no memory of what had occurred. Whatever is happening to me, Healer? None of this makes any sense." She did not mention the curious smells she found on herself when she returned to awareness on that occasion - that detail could come later, once she was sure that Healer Skoll understood that she was not just wasting his time.
"Last night? Why, that is when poor Ulfsson was attacked. My dear - you could have been in terrible danger. There is a killer in the forest. Hm, hm... hm. Tell me, with as much precision as you can manage, what were the times of these - hm- blackouts. Did you keep note of the times?"
With a shudder, Hatti recalled the times of each of the events as best she could, and Healer Skoll scratched them out on the dry dust of the glade floor. The cool light from the nurse robot's illuminated outer shell grew brighter, as did the pale moonlight from Rolf, this planet's second largest moon. Healer Skoll glanced up at that moon, muttered "Hmm - I wonder..." and scratched a few more, wavy lines into the dust.
"Yes, I'm sure that is it. Unless it is mere chance, each of your 'blackouts' have coincided with the full phase of one or another of our five moons. These short periods here, here and here, they occurred when the least moon, Rocky, was briefly full, more than once a night. Then yesterday, this longer spell, that is coincident with the full phase of Rex, the second moon. You don't seem to be affected during the day, so you felt nothing when Rocky was full again during the daytime; but tonight - hmm, tonight - tell me, nurse, what is the phase of the moon Rory tonight, please?"
"The Moon Rory entered full phase at 08:86, shortly after moonrise." intoned the robot.
"Hmm, of course. The sun has just gone down - that means the full moon will already in the sky. This reminds me of an ancient curse - what was the term again? Tip of my tongue... Were-something... were-woman? My dear - are you sure you --" but his voice faded away into incoherence. Hatti was aware that her back was breaking, and that the Healer suddenly seemed to have been painted with rainbows - but then her conscious mind fled.
A dream of pain, and of blood, and of blood-lust, that seemed to last all night, as long as the moon was full.
This time she awoke on all fours, staring down at the sharp-smelling metal object she had glimpsed in the Healer's consulting space. It was a complex looking firearm, with a surprisingly large barrel. From nowhere a hand reached down and picked it up. raising it out of her (still very indistinct) field of vision. No, it wasn't a hand - it was a gloved foot, with long prehensile toes, which held the gun as easily as a hand. The owner of this extraordinary appendage transferred it to his real hands, and stood cradling it admiringly. He was a short, unassuming fellow, now standing squarely on both feet, and now the prehensile nature of those feet seemed much less apparent somehow. The rainbow tints that accompanied her seizures finally faded, and she pulled herself together and faced the stranger.
"Nice hunting weapon, a bit overkill perhaps," he said. "Repeating shotgun, eleven rounds, six of them used. That's five for the robot and one for the doc, I guess."
"Healer Skoll- is he -?"
"Yes, he's dead. And yes, you killed him. Well," the little man said, to Hatti's protests, "it wasn't really you, as you weren't yourself at the time." He looked around, into the dawn-freshening fir tree wood that surrounded them, and added "I think we are safe from pursuit for the nonce, Zar Hatti. And in any case, they will be looking for me, not you. I think I have time to give you some sort of explanation as to what has happened here."
"I - I killed Healer Skoll. But he was my friend and mentor - this cannot be real," she stammered. "Some sort of hallucination, a mind-storm, like the blackouts-"
"Afraid not. You see, you have had some terrible enemies, even if you did not know this. Perhaps a little recap of ancient history might make things a little clearer. About six thousand years ago, back on Old Earth, the simple peasants and farmers of Europe feared and hated the wolf more than any other creature; as well as hunting them nearly to extinction, they conceived strange and wonderful legends of men that changed into wolf form, and went on murderous sprees beneath the Earth's single moon. Many of these legends were inspired by political, racial or religious conflicts, such as the terrible suffering of Peter Stumpp..."
"In the name of all that is holy, what are you talking about? What has happened to me?"
"They called these imaginary half-man, half wolf figures werewolves
. But over time the advance of technology put all this superstition into the shade, with such remarkable things as spaceflight and genetic engineering taking humanity to new realms of endeavour. The werewolf stories became simple entertainments, and after thousands of years practitioners of the plastic arts of biotechnology found a way to recreate the effects of lycanthropy using artificial methods. Humans could become wolves, and so on. They added the dependence on moon phases as an afterthought, a little joke, probably."
"But - but what can this ever have to do with me? I'm not a human!"
"No, no, you are not. Another result of the biotechnology revolution was sentient, sapient animals, creatures that could talk to each other and to the humans. Your kind, as I'm sure you know well, was the result of genetic experimentation by the Talking Dog race- they wanted to have companions of their own, so the Lupinist faction created the sophont wolves here on this world. When I heard that this latest virus had been stolen, I immediately thought of you."
Hatti lifted her muzzle towards his face, her tail between her legs. "Virus? What devilry is this? Tell me, human, or you will find out just how dangerous a wolf can be."
"Don't make the mistake of thinking that I am just a human - there is a lot more going on under this skin than meets the eye. I will tell you, Zar Hatti - but first I should administer this antidote. The sooner we get it into you, the quicker your body will get back to normal." He barely moved, but Hatti felt a sharp prick in her flank. She remembered a similar puncture several months ago - was that when she had first been infected?
"Yes, some idiot thought it would be a good laugh to create a biomorphing/information virus that changed a wolf into a human - and not just any human, but one with an obsessive hatred of wolves. Just supply such a creature with a suitable weapon and the results would be carnage. You see, humans did fear the wolf, back on Old Earth, but the wolf feared humans much more. And with good reason - humans were, after all, the most efficient and dangerous predator on the old world."
"Weapon? Where did - who gave me the gun? Who would do such a thing?"
"I have been tracking this virus halfway across the Civilised Galaxy, and I'm certain I know. You and your mentor, the esteemed Healer Skoll, are important figures in the movement calling for the establishment of a wolfish homeworld, are you not? Not everyone shares your enthusiasm. Think who might benefit if you were disgraced after killing your mentor while in were-woman form."
"There can be only one who would do such a thing - Akela!"
"Indeed, it was she, your oldest enemy. After infecting you, Akela kept watch until you started to develop the symptoms, then planted this hunting gun near your lodge when the first full moons started to take effect. You found the gun, and killed poor Ulfsson; she then made sure the gun was found, and brought back to Healer Skoll's place for 'further investigation'. Akela knew you would want to see the Healer about your 'episodes', but she made sure he was busy until nearly moonrise. Of course, he showed you the gun, just as you were about to 'turn'. I was just too late on the scene to prevent this, but I think I can put this all to rights, with a little luck and steady nerve on your part."
"What can you do, one man? Look here, human, you must tell me who you are, and what your interest is in all of this? Are you one of those responsible for the creation of this virus, driven by guilt or remorse? I knew we should never trust human technology. What is your name. Tell me!"
"Without human-derived technology your people would find it very difficult to find any suitable planet to live on, wolf. Who am I? I am the one who is going to take the rap for you. I'm already infamous on dozens of worlds as a cold-blooded killer, an assassin. The authorities here will find it easy to believe that I killed Ulffson, Skoll and Akela and her accomplices. If she were to be found dead, killed by a human weapon just like the others, they will be quick to pin the deed on me.
Remember my name- I am Colen Coell, the murderer." The small man's eyes burned fiercely.
"No, I forbid this!" Hatti cried. "There has been enough killing; Akela must be brought to trial. We have enough evidence to convict her. Just tell the Pack of Packs everything you know."
"I'm afraid it is too late; I would not have told you my intentions if there had been any way you could have prevented it. She is already dead."
"Dead? No! But perhaps it is not too late. I'm pretty sure Akela is one of those who believes in backup technology. Her mindstate will be stored safely somewhere. We can bring her back - to face trial. And you must face trial too, Zar Coell. You cannot be allowed to use assassination as a tool for good - it is inherently evil."
"That won't be possible - I am leaving this world and its deadly moons today, in a very few moments, in fact. My work is done here. And if you want to restore Akela from her backup, you will that find it has been stolen." He moved imperceptibly, and a white, shiny egg-shaped object appeared in his hand. "Catch."
Hatti instinctively caught the missile in her mouth,, and placed it gingerly on the ground. When she looked up Coell was gone; a few minutes later a rushing sound signalled the departure of a small surface-to-orbit scramjet.
She looked at the white pearly data-trove for a long time, then quietly buried it in the deepest part of the forest.
By Steve Bowers (2014)Voices Future Tense Table of Contents
More details on Rufus, the world where this story is setRufus
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