by Siobhan Zettler
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons episode ‘Expo 2068’
The Colonel was in a bad mood. That was not unusual. When Captain Scarlet was dead, Colonel White was always in a bad mood.
That mood wasn't about to improve. But that had nothing to do with Captain Scarlet.
Captain Grey was counting the minutes as he watched out the perspex viewport down into Cloudbase's cavernous main hangar deck. He was standing in the lower deck's mezzanine conference room, waiting side by side with Technician Terracotta, the both of them nervous and sweating in trepidation.
He had ordered the warning klaxons silenced immediately, though the emergency lights were still spinning out their cyclic distress, the stroboscopic white and amber beams pulsing their way around and around and around the empty and deserted helijet bay.
The Deck Officer was upset, no doubt pacing around the small Security office located directly below his own feet – on a level with the crisis. The Deck Officer was requesting instruction, having found none in the procedures manual to cover the present circumstance.
"It's a full quarantine," Grey explained into his cap mike, calmly, quietly. "Just keep that lockdown active and all personnel clear until further notice. We don't want to make things any worse. Grey out."
Beside him, Terracotta was agitated. "The scrubbers can't handle it," she moaned, banging her head against the spex with her eyes closed. "They just weren't designed with this contingency in mind!"
Grey heaved a sigh, not liking it. Terracotta was Cloudbase's Chief Environmental Engineer, a part of the civilian staff, one of the very few non-military personnel on board the carrier who rated a color-coded designation. She took care of the Systems – the vents and the plumbing, kept Cloudbase's air clean and the water pure. Terracotta was not easily flustered, and she wasn't squeamish either – for she was also in charge of things like the waste recycling and the raw sewage.
If Terracotta was upset, then so was Captain Grey. She took care of some of the most Important Things – the things that the rest of them took very much for granted until and unless it looked like things might go wrong.
And this – this was looking very much like something that could and would go wrong. Very, very wrong indeed.
Grey hadn't the slightest idea what they were going to do about it either.
It was less than four minutes before the door opened and Colonel White strode in, his brow creased and countenance frowning, far less than happy, that much was for certain.
"What's the meaning of this, Captain?! Report!"
Oh no, not a good mood out of the Colonel at all.
Grey straightened to attention. "Sir – we have a situation, sir."
"What sort of a situation, man? That helijet hasn't been here for more than ten minutes – they scarcely got Scarlet off and into Sickbay and the next thing I knew was that someone had called a level one quarantine into effect!"
Terracotta stepped forward. "I'll accept full responsibility, Colonel. I called the quarantine."
"And I authorized it, sir," Grey hastened to add. As civvie technical staff, Terracotta didn't have the authority to enact such a thing on her own.
He did. And he hadn't hesitated.
Grey was about to go on when the door opened again and Ochre came skidding into the conference room with Melody Angel on his heels, the two of them responding to the emergency in record time, if they'd come down from upper decks.
Less than record time if they'd come off-duty from quarters – his or hers – here on lower decks, which was not impossible, just rather unlikely, as there had been a Mysteron threat current and active until just a few short hours ago. Still, there were rumors circulating. The fact that the two of them had just arrived together and simultaneously lent a certain credence to those rumors.
"I'm waiting, Captain," Colonel White growled.
"Sir," Grey stepped away from the viewport, though Terracotta had turned her worried gaze back out into the hangar, biting at her lip. Ochre and Melody took note, and approached the spex slowly and carefully, unsure precisely what they were going to find there.
"Sir," Grey repeated. "The helijet bringing Captain Blue and Captain Scarlet back from the Expo site in Manicouagan made a routine touchdown and lock-through into the flight deck. The helijet was met promptly by the med-staff, and Captain Scarlet taken to Sickbay immediately. Captain Blue shut down all systems and logged off as usual, turning the helijet over to the flight mechanics for routine post-flight maintenance and make-ready."
"And?" Colonel White was short-tempered and impatient.
Grey opened his mouth to continue, but Ochre let slip an explicit curse and Melody squeaked in horror, the two of them now shoulder to shoulder with Terracotta at the viewport, looking the same direction at the same scenario.
"Colonel White – the mechanics discovered a problem with the helijet."
"I'll say…" Ochre quipped like an idiot, as his initial shock gave way to something that Grey could only define as a flippant appreciation of the potential –
Because Ochre was possessed of a wicked – some said a downright evil – sense of humor and was probably that very moment musing how he could have turned the situation into one of the most supremely heinous of practical jokes. Ochre had that kind of imagination.
"What sort of a problem?! Spit it out, Captain!" The Colonel's short patience was wearing dangerously thin – and Ochre's all too typical smart-ass attitude wasn't helping.
Grey cleared his throat. "Potential biohazard, sir. The entire base is at risk of contamination."
"Cloudbase is a closed environment, sir," Terracotta pressed the point. "We're not equipped for this. The filters and the air scrubbers won't stop it. This is an utterly unforeseen circumstance and there's no contingency in place to handle it." She wrung her hands, distraught as she stated the obvious.
Grey watched as Colonel White blinked, some sense of dire urgency seeping past the impatience, penetrating through the bad mood. Spectrum's Commander-in-Chief moved toward the viewport, and the subordinate officer, pilot and civvie staff there stood aside.
Grey held his breath, waiting for the reaction.
"What in God's name…" Colonel White stared downwards. "Is this a joke, Captain?!" The Colonel's expression had gone from quizzical to skeptical in something short of a nanosecond, and he swung around to fix those vivid, pale-blue eyes not on Grey, but on Ochre, whose reputation for practical jokes was well and widely known. And who was also, at that very moment, only scantly concealing the mirth bubbling under the serious expression that his colleague was trying without much success to maintain.
To his credit, Ochre was at least startled by the suggested accusation in the tone. Perhaps even a little flattered.
"If it is, Colonel, then it's not one of mine," Ochre replied, somehow managing a respectful non-grin. "But this would be a tough one to organize, let alone to manage. No, sir." Ochre shook his head emphatically. "I really don't think this is a practical joke."
"Based on your vast experience?"
"Ah... if you'd like to look at it that way. Yes, sir. In my considered opinion."
"Just a highly entertaining happenstance?" Colonel White was not wholly mollified, and well aware that Ochre was, in fact, amused.
Ochre shrugged. "That will depend entirely on how things play out, sir."
Colonel White scowled and turned back to the spex. "I want this situation...resolved, Captains! A level one quarantine cripples this base. The flight deck is presently inoperative, and that is completely unacceptable!" Shaking his head, Colonel White leaned heavily on the sill of the viewport, again casting his gaze down into the flight hangar. "Is that really what I think it is?" he inquired at last, resigning himself to the prospect without enthusiasm.
"Yes, sir. I'm afraid it is," Grey confirmed.
"Once again, sir," Grey let out a long sigh of his own. "I'm afraid the reputation is also justified." Grey moved forward, coming alongside the colonel at the spex, verifying for himself that things hadn't miraculously changed in the last few minutes.
The problem was still there.
Lost and confused and sitting right there in the middle of the deck.
"It's a skunk, sir," Grey said.
It was not something with which Colonel White himself had any direct experience.
The skunk – a small creature, characteristically black with two broad white stripes running down its back and bushy tail - looked to his eye to be little more than an oversized, oddly colored squirrel. The skunk was not native to the British Isles, and if any resided there, they were quite properly confined to zoos or to be found taxidermically stuffed in museums.
But his subordinates (most of them) were reacting to the skunk's presence as if it actually constituted an emergency.
He let his glance wander the group, pensive and thinking hard.
Grey, Ochre, Melody Angel and Technician Terracotta; North Americans, every last one of them, hailing from Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta and Ottawa respectively. Three Yanks and a Canuck. All of them of the same opinion.
Presumably familiar with the hazard.
But it was Terracotta's reaction that was disturbing him the most.
No contingency. Biohazard. Contamination of the entire base.
As he considered the potential difficulties, Colonel White regained his bad mood. It had not been the best of days. First the Mysterons - and a threat to devastate a significant portion of the North American continent. A non-idle and very narrowly averted threat, involving missing trucks with nuclear reactors, a murdered driver, a wounded civilian, a hijacked freight helicopter and all manner of upset and panic amongst various local authorities and governments - at least half a dozen of whom had already placed calls that he was required to respond to, all of them making useless, belated demands for information and utterly pointless suggestions about how Spectrum might have better conducted itself while operating within their respective boundaries and jurisdictions. The High Commissioner for the World Expo was clamoring for attention. The power utility that owned the reactor was in a similar uproar –
Never mind that Captain Scarlet was dead, besides. Always a concern, that was. With never any guarantee that it was a temporary state of affairs.
And now it was Mother Nature handing him problems.
"This is an operational base!" he barked. "Not a wildlife center!"
"Sir, we appreciate that, however –"
"Get the thing off my deck! Captain Grey – I'm putting you in charge of this removal operation. Requisition whatever personnel or equipment necessary. Someone must have some relevant experience! But get it done. I'll not have vermin running this base!"
There was a brief silence. Captain Grey finally cleared his throat, seeming to feel it incumbent on him to say something, as he'd enacted the quarantine in the first place. "We'll handle it, sir."
"We had a nest of 'em under the porch once," Melody Angel volunteered.
"Urban crits," Ochre offered after that. "My cousin had a pet raccoon."
Colonel White turned, narrowing his eyes at the both of them. "I gather then that comprises relevant experience," he stated rather than asked. "Thank you. You've both just volunteered to apprehend the creature. Now, I have other more urgent matters to attend. Captain Grey – I will expect your report on the situation as soon as possible."
"S.I.G., Colonel. I'll keep you apprised of our progress."
"Do that, Captain. You have your orders." Colonel White nodded once in general dismissal, even though he was the one leaving. He crossed the floor, an uneasy silence from his subordinates trailing in his wake. He turned as the door opened, having clearly assigned them to the task, fully confident that they would see it done, and quickly.
"Good luck," he wished and left them to it.
"Nice going, Fraser! Look what you just got us into!" Melody Angel turned, irritated, unhappy and swatted Ochre on the shoulder as soon as Colonel White had cleared the room. "What the hell do raccoons have to do with this?"
Grey had been thinking precisely the same thing. "Absolutely nothing, I'm sure," he said, folding his arms as he continued to stare down at the small, furry black and white problem – his problem, suddenly – and wished it was as simple as a raccoon instead of a skunk.
Ochre spread his hands in a gesture of offended innocence. "Hey… they both come out at night and turn into roadkill before morning."
"With certain very obvious differentiating characteristics." Grey shook his head. "This is a touch more serious than Colonel White realizes. I somehow don't think he's ever had the dubious delight of driving past a bit of ripe roadkill skunk before."
"Unlike the rest of us." Terracotta groaned again. "Think about that in the vents, Captain. Closed system. You want that in your quarters?"
"Ugh," Melody said, wrinkling her nose. "Double-ugh. No...triple-ugh!"
"Fine! And no, I don't want that in my quarters," Ochre admitted, moving back toward the viewport. "Little stink bomb terrorist. Do any of these panels open?" Ochre ran a finger along the perspex panel's edge. "I could just shoot it from here."
"No!" In a surprising, unrehearsed unison, Grey, Melody and Terracotta all objected vehemently otherwise.
Leave it to Ochre, Grey thought, to go right to the most direct, pragmatic and least palatable solution.
"You can't shoot it just because it's a skunk," Terracotta insisted. "That's not humane!"
"Neither is skunk reek in the vents," Ochre argued, rolling his eyes. "I thought that was what we were trying to avoid."
"The panels don't open," Grey said aloud, knowing that Ochre knew that, and had likely just been testing the rest of them out for their reactions. "They're all pressure sealed." Grey frowned, wondering if Ochre's suggestion – serious or otherwise – wasn't the simplest and most expedient answer. "It'd probably spray even if you did shoot it," he said. "Death throes. Even a tranquilizer dart probably wouldn't help. We could ask Fawn."
"Fawn's busy," Ochre dismissed that idea. "What'd you do about the nest under the porch, Melody?"
Melody shrugged. "Mom called Pest Control."
"Sounds like a plan," Ochre muttered. "D'you suppose they make house calls at 40,000 feet?"
"We want it taken care of a bit quicker than that." Grey thought about it. "But it's a place to start. I mean, there must be techniques for dealing with this sort of thing. Terri – get on the net, do a bit of research. You two…" Grey spared a glance toward Melody and Ochre. "Had better suit up – decontamination gear."
"Uh-uh." Ochre shook his head. "And scare the thing at first sight? It'll have seen people, not people in space suits. Com'on, Mel, we'd better get changed."
"Into?" Melody questioned, as Ochre went for the door.
"The rattiest, tattiest duds you own. Whatever you've got that you won't mind incinerating later."
"That sounds pessimistic." Melody followed, less than thrilled by the idea.
"It is pessimistic. I haven't thought of a way to corner the thing without upsetting it yet. You're not supposed to startle or scare 'em. And I'd say that one's already nervous."
"Maybe we could feed it."
"Do you know what they eat?"
"Uh....no," Melody admitted.
"I'll find out," Terracotta assured them, already seated at the conference table's workstation. "And I'll have someone bring it down from the galley. I'll see if we can scare up a mesh net of some sort for you. Heavy gloves. And something to lock it up in."
Grey kept his eye on the critter. "We'll get all the gear down to the Deck Officer. Don't waste time – it could disappear anywhere, anytime. Ten minutes?"
Ochre paused briefly at the threshold. "Eight," he estimated, and then vanished with Melody still on his heels. Grey pulled his cap mike down, deciding that Terracotta was going to need some help on the info search, putting several of the Deck Officer's idle staff to work on the same task and the rest of them on skunk watch.
And, on the whole, feeling pretty much as pessimistic as Ochre about the entire business, too.
Eight minutes was plenty of time, though Melody had complained about the tight schedule all the way back to her own quarters. Which meant not much or for long. She was a professional, and she knew how seconds could count in a crisis, never mind minutes. It was one of the things Ochre liked about her.
He already had the cap and the tunic off by the time he reached his own quarters and was peeling out of the shirt even as he was kicking off the boots. Damned uniforms were expensive, there was no way he was turning any part of his official wardrobe into skunk fodder.
He knew where his grubbies were, consisting of an old World Police t-shirt, tattered jeans with paint stains and ripped out knees. Nothing he'd ever miss. He even knew where the scruffy sneakers were, buried at the bottom of the storage bin under the bunk – they were old and disreputable, presently unused and not nearly as vile as he remembered them. But that aromatic situation would change, once he had them on again, and it would change with a radical, heat-activated potency that might give even a skunk pause when that reached its maximum efficiency.
He had the Deck Officer on the line while he changed, requesting a couple of hands-free radio headsets be available and fully charged – in about four minutes. Time was flying, but he was ready, and he slapped a seldom-used baseball cap onto his head as he picked up the final bit of personal gear he'd run across buried in the same drawer as the cap. He headed back out into the corridor, as prepared mentally and physically as he could be, expecting the worst.
And certainly trying to keep with the total absurdity of the circumstances.
He rejoined Melody in the corridor as she emerged from her own compartment, her dress-down garb every bit as disreputable as his own. His favorite Angel was also sporting old jeans and a t-shirt, the uniform of the hour. She had a couple of brightly patterned bandanas in one hand and a pair of swim goggles in the other, gear that was every bit as makeshift and as appropriate as his, though her sacrifice sneakers were in somewhat better condition than the ones he was wearing.
They found, when they reached the Deck Officer's cluttered little office, that all the staff there – some of Spectrum's best – had been moving fast, and improvising well, because that small space was now littered with an imaginative array of pursuit and intercept gear.
There was, in addition to the two headsets he'd requested, a big canvas and mesh bag (a laundry tote from Services), a large net for throwing (volleyball equipment pilfered from the gym), several pairs of heavy leather work gloves (belonging to various of the flight mechanics) and an even more impressive pair of up-to-the-elbow neoprene gloves (normally used for aviation fuelling purposes). But best of all, in Ochre's immediate opinion, there was also an angler's capture net, donated from somebody's personal collection of dusty, unused fishing gear. It had a short aluminum handle, but it had been securely fastened to an extension pole with duct tape. It was impromptu, but it now had considerable reach. That was liable to be important.
Not bad, he thought, for seven minutes worth of scrambling. The two radio sets were already tuned to both the console transceiver in the mezzanine conference room and to Grey's cap, live and ready to go. Ochre turned his pistol over to the Deck Officer for safekeeping. Gunfire was a thing far less than recommended in the hangar and flight deck - where the presence of both aviation fuels and live ordnance made the very risk of such strictly prohibited and inadvisable under all but the most extreme of circumstances.
The damn skunk – as insanely inconvenient as it was – really didn't count as such.
"Any changes to report?" Ochre asked, as he spun the ball cap around backwards, fitted the radio head-set and tested it out as soon as he had it settled in place. "Grey? What's the furball up to?"
"Status quo, Ochre. The thing's nosing around a bit, but it hasn't gone far from where you last saw it. Terri says they don't like bright lights - so we've shut down the strobes, hoping it won't be strung out and nervous."
"Good thinking. So what else do we know that we didn't know a few minutes ago? Does the little perp have an M.O.? I'm not seeing any food for it down here."
It was Terracotta that came back on the line. "We don't have much that it likes. They're omnivorous by definition, but carnivorous by preference. They eat meat; worms, grubs, beetles, carrion - all of which are in somewhat short supply in the galley. They'll even eat mice and bird's eggs when they can get them. We can manage a few chicken eggs and some fruit for it. Whether or not it's hungry or will even be tempted to eat under the circumstances is another matter."
"We can still try," Melody said, coming online with her own radio. "Is someone on the way from the galley?"
"As we speak. Just give it a minute."
"Is there anything else we want to know?" Ochre rephrased his request for information. "Am I gonna need a rabies shot before I'm done?"
"Don't let it bite you," Terracotta replied. "It's not likely to have rabies, but skunks are notorious carriers. If it does bite you, there'll be no choice but to have to put it down for testing and you'll need treatment too, just in case. You wouldn't like that very much."
Ochre paused, considering that aspect of things. "I think I'd like shooting it better," he reiterated the option, despite the fact that he'd already disarmed.
"No!" That from all three of his mission colleagues again, still in vigorous unison.
"Just asking," he muttered, and looked up as a plastic plate containing two eggs and a sliced-up apple arrived by foot-courier from the galley. Melody took custody of it, as Ochre donned a pair of the heavy leather work gloves, and then slipped the big neoprene ones on top of them.
With stiff, hardly mobile fingers, he then placed his own personal safety goggles (eliciting a stunned silence from the nearby crew) and picked up the fishing net. He signaled for the Deck Officer to open the security door.
"We're going in!" he announced melodramatically, and then strode out into the hangar with a burdened and bemused Melody Angel trailing behind –
It was Ochre just being... Ochre, right to the core and at his random best. Grey stared, and raised an annoyed eyebrow at the sights that presented themselves only a second or two after Ochre's serio-comic proclamation of intent.
"Ochre," Grey stated the code-name drily when he saw Ochre emerge from the security office. "What are you doing?"
"Skunk hunting," Ochre replied, matter-of-factly. "It was an order."
"I mean, what, specifically, are you doing with that damned silly head gear?"
"I'm wearing it. You know - safety goggles."
"I don't think that nose-glasses fall into that category," he said pointedly. Ochre had rigged out with an enormous pair of gag nose-glasses on his face - a set with huge bushy black brows riding atop the oversize spectacles and pale bulbous plastic nose with an equally bushy moustache tacked onto the underside. "I thought you didn't want to scare the thing."
As if that wasn't bad enough, Melody (obviously learning very quickly during off-duty rec-time) was looking every bit as ridiculous, with a big yellow bandana knotted up to cover her hair, another orange one tied robber-style across her face and a pair of hot-pink, tight-fitting swim goggles nestled securely between the two.
God, Grey groaned inwardly. I'm trying to get something serious taken care of here and I get Groucho Marx with a neon bandit sidekick in swimming specs to do the work.
He refused to pursue any additional verbal admonitions or commentary about it. It very seldom paid to encourage Ochre's bouts of public mischief aloud. And most certainly never within Ochre's earshot if one did.
Terracotta abandoned the workstation to join him there at the viewport, concern deepening the furrow across her brow. She was thirty-something, solid in her commitment and confident in her job, as competent and as steady as they came. Grey knew her qualifications were impeccable. Terracotta knew Cloudbase from the inside out, and cared about it more than most of Spectrum's elite officers knew. She had already been anxious about the circumstances, worried over the possible consequences should things go wrong out there, and she was becoming increasingly alarmed by the content of the conversation she'd just overheard. She had short-cropped chestnut-red hair, and a band of rust-colored freckles across her nose. Ochre's cavalier outlook, and the state in which he'd managed to present himself were sufficient to widen Terracotta's eyes, and left those freckles standing out in stark contrast to the skin that had further paled beneath them.
It wasn't that she lacked any sense of humor. For Terracotta's real name was Teresa (Terri) Cotter, and she'd selected her color-code name because it had been both available and a perceived source of perpetual personal amusement.
"They have poor hearing and poor eyesight," Terracotta said into her com-link after a moment, consigning herself to moving forward with the operation, hoping, no doubt, that performance was going to count more than appearances. "They can only see well for three or four feet."
"Should be easy to catch it then," Ochre whispered loudly as he brandished the fishnet and turned for his quarry.
"Its nose works. And they can spray up to twelve feet when they do, further in a favorable wind. They're accurate for about half of that."
"Wind shouldn't be a problem. I think we have enough reach. Any signs we should be watching out for?"
"In general, skunks only spray as a last resort. They prefer to run away from trouble, but will warn it off by displaying their intent to spray. They'll stamp their front feet, arch their backs, raise their tails or even perform handstands for an enemy. Those are your first clues."
"And if the worst happens?"
"Don't get any in your eyes. Skunk musk causes intense irritation and sometimes temporary blindness. Nausea and vomiting are common reactions."
"Just keeps on getting better, Terri. We're going to shut down the chatter on this end, you just keep feeding us whatever information you come up with that sounds useful, and have everyone keep an eye on the crit. If it bolts, we want to be able to track it down. Sound fair?"
"You've got it, Captain." Terracotta nodded as Melody waggled a finger at them, the Angel's hands otherwise being too fully occupied with gear and tidbits for a proper wave. Terracotta moved back to the workstation to continue her research. Grey kept his place at the perspex, watching with an increased interest as Ochre and Melody began actively to stalk their quarry.
So far, the skunk seemed unaware that it was under pursuit. It had wandered from the vicinity of the helijet across an expanse of open deck and stopped, perhaps having lost its bearings, if its eyesight was truly as poor as Terracotta had indicated. Ochre moved to within 30 feet of the critter, and paused, taking bearings of his own, looking for the best angle of approach, scanning for likely holes the thing could dive for if it did turn tail and run.
Then the door to the room opened, this time to admit an incredulous Captain Blue, without a doubt having just arrived from Sickbay, where he'd very obviously spoken with Colonel White. Blue was openly skeptical, striding into the room with an unaccustomed, intensely dubious frown pulling his brows together as his glance darted between the viewport and Grey's face.
"I brought a what back with me from Manicouagan?!" Blue blurted.
Grey could only gesture out the viewport. "I'm sure you heard it right," he said as Blue closed the distance. "But you can see for yourself if you really don't believe it."
As Blue came closer to take in the hangar scenario, Grey traded a weary glimpse with Terracotta, so far the only other person involved who seemed to want to take the situation seriously.
"All right then; Skunks 101, a crash course," Terracotta continued, having sifted through some information and distilled it down for delivery. "The common striped skunk - and that certainly appears to be what we have here - is widespread throughout Canada, the United States - other than Alaska - and into northern Mexico. They are nocturnal, members of the weasel family. Genus: mephitis. Species: mephitis mephitis."
"That seems a bit redundant. Did they run out of decent words to use?" Grey wondered aloud.
"It's Latin," Terracotta supplied. "According to this, it means 'poisonous vapor'."
"I was thinking it sounded more like Faust," Blue remarked. "As in Mephistopheles."
"I hated English Lit. Especially Shakespeare," Ochre complained. "Who?"
"We did that one in high school," Melody whispered. "Not Shakespeare. Faust, I mean. I think it was German."
"Mephistopheles," Blue repeated. "Mephisto for short. The Devil, if that helps."
"Well, that's appropriate enough," Ochre muttered. "In a negative sort of way."
"Males are larger than females," Terracotta forged ahead, interrupting. "Ranging up to 11 pounds in weight, the females about 8. They live in a variety of habitats, but prefer forest border, brushy areas and open fields – ”
"Sounds a lot like Manicouagan," Blue grumbled.
"And they're abundant in suburban areas due to the large number of buildings that provide them with cover."
"Sounds a lot like our porch," Melody added.
'They generally don't live more than a mile or two from a source of water. They don't hibernate, but they do den from November through March – breeding in February or March, they produce litters only in the springtime. Males and females have little else to do with one another during other times of the year."
"Doesn't sound like any fun. Idiot crits."
"Females with young can be at some risk from encounters with solitary males, whose territories often overlap those of several females."
"All of that's very interesting, Terri - but what about its weaponry?" Ochre asked, very quietly. "That's what we're most worried about at the moment."
"Just about there, Captain. But this sounds like something a bit more relevant for your situation: skunks are slow moving and docile."
"Oh – good news!"
"Striped skunks do not normally discharge the contents of their scent glands unless they are mortally threatened."
"Even better. Seeing as I'm not allowed to shoot it. Does it know these rules?"
"I thought you were going to shut up, Ochre," Grey interrupted, growing more irritated by the minute by Ochre's idiotic comebacks. Ochre, however, did not deign to reply, which was, Grey knew, far more an Ochre-typical disregard for the commentary rather than it was any sort of compliance with it.
"When mortally threatened, however, they will assume a U-shaped posture, with both head and rump facing the enemy."
"No, just flexible weasel-relatives. A skunk has voluntary control over the two scent glands located at the base of its tail, and can control the direction in which its musk is sprayed."
"Not such good news. So much for the delivery system. What about the ammo?"
"This is the scary part, Captain. The musk is comprised of a thick volatile yellowish and oily liquid - this obnoxious scent can be detected up to twenty miles away from its point of discharge, and it can persist for months."
Grey blinked in surprise. Blue's eyes went wider. There was (finally) a genuine silence from Ochre and no comment from Melody.
"No wonder we called a quarantine," Grey murmured, as he digested that piece of information. At least he would have something to justify and substantiate his reasons for doing so when it came to his written reports. Contamination of the entire base had not been any exaggeration by the sound of that little snippet of knowledge.
It wasn't often used, but Cloudbase had a small galley topside, where anyone feeling the need could indulge his or her culinary whims. In due season, Symphony and Melody had been known to bake up a storm of apple or pumpkin pies - and whenever they did, the scent of that baking carried delectably, wafting throughout the entire base in Terracotta's well maintained, highly efficient ventilation systems, whetting appetites and driving everyone mouth-wateringly mad.
Grey imagined that any bad smells would carry every bit as well and as efficiently as the good ones.
"That's with a favorable wind, right?" Ochre asked after a moment. Hopefully.
“I don’t know if that’s a typo or not. Most of these sites say one or two miles. Which is still more range than enough to contaminate all of Cloudbase.” Terracotta went on, now that she had Ochre's undivided attention. "It gets even worse. If its warnings fail to deter an intruder, the skunk will hiss, spread its haunches and spray. And it doesn’t take it long to reload. They can spray repeatedly, 5 or 6 times."
"This base is done for!" Blue groaned. "If it's that freaking potent, then why didn't I know that I had the thing on board the helijet?"
Terracotta shrugged. "Skunks themselves don't smell like skunk musk."
"This one lives near the Expo construction site," Grey surmised. "It would be familiar with heavy machinery. Lots of work choppers there. And you didn't mortally threaten it, either."
"Damn glad I didn't trip over it on the way out." Blue seemed suddenly relieved, and happy enough not to be the one down there in Ochre's particular position at the moment.
"Must've still been in hiding at that point." Grey was not happy himself. Not with the situation, not with Ochre's general attitude, and certainly not by Blue's doomsday pronouncement. He was less happy still, when the door – it may as well have been a revolving one, he decided – opened one more time –
It was Symphony, still in her flight jumpsuit, evidently just relieved from standby duty, and grinning with amusement, ear to ear.
"Polecat in the hangar?" she inquired cheerfully. "That's gotta be a first!" She crossed the room and slipped one arm into Blue's, as if they were about to promenade together out to a show of some sort. No surprise there. Those specific rumors had been laid to rest ages ago.
"Good news sure travels fast." Grey folded his arms. "Hold the small talk, if you don't mind, please. Some of us are trying to resolve the situation." He glared a brief annoyance at both Blue and Symphony, neither of whom took note of it, because they were both too busy looking out into the hangar. "Let's have a few details on the potent stuff, Terri. I'm thinking about possible damages and cleanup."
"Tomato juice," Blue offered. "How much do you suppose they have in the galley?"
"I've heard that tomato juice doesn't really work." Melody replied to that when she heard it over the com. "The pest-control guys said it's just a myth."
"That's what the web says too," Terracotta confirmed. "It says here that chemists have determined that there are 7 distinct compounds that make up skunk musk. The major ingredients are called thiols –"
"Thigh-alls?" Symphony chuckled again in the background, and Melody sighed patiently. Symphony seldom missed an opportunity to revel in innuendo whenever the opportunity presented itself. “Whoo-hoo!”
"T-H-I-O-L-S---" Terracotta spelled it out, just to be clear for the transcript of the incident, which Lieutenant Green would no doubt be recording for posterity, if he wasn't broadcasting the events live all over the base, just to keep all crew informed for the duration of the crisis. The Quarantine status that Captain Grey had invoked would be meticulously logged, encrypted and flagged in the Base archives. Thoroughly. Those were the Rules.
Symphony had evidently not thought of that as yet.
Terracotta continued: " – which are created by decomposing proteins. Skunk musk has evolved to resemble the stench other animals identify as decay and that they naturally shy away from. Two of the most potent compounds responsible for the musk's strong odour are: butane-1-thiol - commonly called butyl mercaptan - and methyl-1-butanethiol." Terracotta paused for breath. "There's another 5 or so compounds as well, but most of those have never been identified. I'm not going to try to pronounce the ones that have been for you."
"English Lit to Chemisty," Ochre complained. "We won't remember them anyway Terri, save your breath." Ochre glanced around, and then nudged at her elbow. "Mel – do you suppose we could corner it in one of the SPJ bays?"
"Maybe." Melody scanned the area to portside ahead of them, looking into the three jet-storage slots, probably the most enclosed areas they could hope to find to contain the skunk. She tried to recall what lay at the back wall, whether it presented a solid barrier or not - because even a small vent hole would be bad news if the skunk might find it before they had it netted. The jets were in the way too, something the skunk could run under with complete impunity and they would themselves have to crawl beneath if necessary. "Hang on – oh – I think maybe it's seen us...." she dropped her voice to a low whisper, and everyone stopped talking.
The skunk had turned, its pointy snout snuffling busily. Melody took a tentative step closer, crouching down with one of the eggs in hand. Nearing cautiously, she moved to within about 10 feet of the crit, and then carefully rolled the egg toward it. Ochre came level with her, his net and pole at the ready.
The egg wobbled and veered, but rolled close enough that the skunk saw it. Unalarmed, it investigated the egg with its nose, putting a clawed foot on top of the thing and squeaking quietly. It was small, almost delicate in its beautiful and luxurious coat. It was no larger than a house-cat and looking every bit as innocuous.
"Careful with that net, Ochre, honey – you'll hurt it if you hit it too hard," she whispered a concerned warning as quietly as she could.
"Why is everyone so worried about the damn skunk?" Ochre asked the question in a similar hushed tone, without taking his eyes from the target. He had the net high, gauging the distance and the arc it would have to drop through to make a successful capture of the beast.
"We want to be nice to it so that it won't spray," Melody stated pointedly under her breath. "Are you going to try to catch it or not?"
"What makes you think it won't spray no matter what we do or don't do?"
"Fraser!" The man was wasting time, and any second now that skunk was going to Notice them and take a personal interest.
"All right, all right! Keep your bandana on! Jeez – I'm only warming up." Ochre moved a step to the left. "Put the plate down, get your net ready – I'll try to sneak up on it from the other side and if it runs, toss the net and catch it. How difficult can it be?"
"It's gonna run towards me?!"
"Relax... I'm the one who'll be looking at the business end of the thing!" Ochre moved stealthily away, his extended net hovering over the near center of the circle he was tracing around the skunk.
"They contort, remember?"
"It won't. Not if I catch it first."
"If," Melody repeated the key word. A very big little word, if was. Melody left her plate of tidbits on the floor and hefted the volleyball net, spreading it equally across both hands, waiting anxiously for Ochre to complete his circuit around the skunk. Its nose was still working, following that slow progress, though Ochre should still have been outside its clear visual range.
She supposed, however, it might be able to see something in the direction its nostrils indicated something might be located. She didn't suppose it was completely blind beyond a few feet, no more than she supposed it wouldn't spray, even if it was caught in a net.
Nets being very porous objects in their own right.
"There, you see," Ochre whispered into his headset mike. "It's got me in its sights now."
"You've no idea how comforting I find that," Melody whispered drily in reply. The image that Ochre cut, there in his cap and nose-glasses, was hardly inspiring her with confidence.
"If you confront it, be prepared," Terracotta warned quietly. "They'll stand their ground when push comes to shove and challenge whatever's in their path. That's how they end up as roadkill, because they'll stand in front of an oncoming vehicle to spray it instead of moving out of its way. That's the instinct."
"That's just stupid," Ochre assessed.
"The instinct evolved before the advent of the motor vehicle. Skunks aren't afraid of anything, Captain, that's why the warning stripes and total lack of camouflage – they don't care if they're seen."
"Got it." Ochre set his stance, narrowing his focus to the task at hand and preparing to lunge at the skunk with his fishing net. "Ready, Mel?"
"As ever I will be," Melody replied, tensing, her own net gripped tightly. "Go for it."
Ochre's eyes flicked from the skunk to the end of his net and back again as his knees bent, ready to spring. "On three..." he murmured. "One... two... and... three!"
Bounding forward, net swinging in a downward arc, Ochre moved –
– and the skunk did too.
With a hissing squeal, its tail shot straight upward, the clear warning that Terracotta had predicted. Melody flinched, but the thing scurried forward, right towards Ochre, dodging under the descending net as Ochre's knee hit the hard steel of the deck and the skunk kept on going, scampering straight on past his feet as the aluminum frame of the fishing net struck empty space and deck plates, the intended quarry fleeing directly away from the SPJ bays –
Melody cursed silently, still holding onto her so-far useless net while Ochre cursed aloud, spinning on the one knee in time to see where the thing was aiming for as it ran…
"No, dammit!" Ochre hissed under a dismayed breath. "Not under there!"
The escaping skunk had disappeared – and it had disappeared beneath the tangle of pipes and hoses that comprised the hangar's mobile fuelling tantalus. Constructed primarily of spark resistant carbon fibre mesh and rubber, the apparatus had a raised platform and catwalk, presently locked into place and positioned over one of the 'pits' – a cramped work area that spanned the distance between the hangar floor and the under-the-deck, a crawl space used to access and maintenance the hydraulic systems that lifted any airlocked craft to the outer launch deck.
That cramped service level was the last place he'd wanted the thing to find. Pursuing the skunk, he went down on his hands and knees, then flat to the deck with his net in hand, carefully pulling himself along the deck plates in the narrow space under the catwalks, wishing the light was better. Melody was coming along behind him, her gathered gear and goodies in hand once again.
"I think I can see it," he whispered, and Melody froze where she was, her head close to his ankles. "Terri – can we turn up the hangar lights at all?"
"Hang on, we'll see what we can do about it..." Terracotta acknowledged the request, and they waited as the auxiliary emergency lights were manually overridden and activated, one after another, along the length of the hangar.
Melody coughed. "Fraser..." she said, all distaste. "It's brutal down here. Like something died. Are those your sneakers that I'm smelling?"
He hesitated to reply – those old running shoes were certainly not a way to impress a wanna-be girlfriend. "Hey - sometimes you've gotta fight fire with fire..." he muttered finally, putting on the best, maybe the only spin he could come up with for that particular malodorous circumstance.
"Fire nothin'," she complained. "What'd you call that stink-stuff, Terri, honey?"
"Butyl mercaptan," Terracotta supplied. "A by-product of decaying proteins."
"Well, we're not gonna get anywhere near that crit with Ochre's brutal-your-captain-something-died-in-them sneakers on down here."
"Very funny...." Ochre was less than amused. He remained totally unapologetic, hearing it in the background as Symphony picked up that ball and ran with it.
"Brutal-her-captain's shoes," Symphony giggled with delight. "They'll love that in the Amber Room."
"Where's our damn lights?" Ochre asked, cranky enough in the tight quarters, irritated that he'd missed the crit in his first attempt to catch it, but nonetheless optimistically reckoning that it could only be a good thing to be a main topic of discussion in the Amber Room. "Where's that plate of stuff, Mel?"
"Right here." Pushing the plastic plate along the floor, Melody clumsily worked her way alongside his elbow. "Can't you move over even a little bit, Fraser?"
He had tried. The narrow space became for a moment an awkward nightmare of elbows and knees in motion as Melody managed to squeeze level with him. He gave her his best and most lecherous grin. "That's nice and cozy," he purred loudly, wickedly, just for Symphony's benefit. "Is that good for you, Jones?" That ought to generate some discussion that would easily override the footwear issue for gossip-value. He leered behind the nose-glasses.
"Cozy enough for a good slap upside the head," Melody drawled icily, also for the benefit of those on the other end of the line, though she winked at him from behind the pink goggles. "Where'd you say you thought you saw that critter?"
"It was..." Ochre's voice trailed into silence, lecherous thoughts instantly banished and forgotten. "There," he breathed. "Mel... it's right there, to your right."
There, at the back end underneath the fuelling tantalus, just a few feet away now, was the skunk, abruptly illuminated in a band of light as the overheads came on topside of the fuel platform.
Watching them with those shiny little black eyes, pointy nose all a twitch. It squeaked once. And it waited.
Ochre stared at it from that close range, knowing right then that something was wrong. It wasn't nervous. It wasn't scared. And, dammit all, right there, dark and very cleverly camouflaged under its sleek, black coat it was wearing –
"Why the hell is it wearing a collar?" he asked into the sudden quiet. "This thing's got tags!"
The silence that came back on the radio was deafening.
"Say again, Ochre?" Grey asked.
"I said: it's got a collar and tags. This thing belongs to somebody."
"What? Like it's a pet?"
"The Web says they can make good pets," Terracotta chimed in. "Try talking to it."
Immediately, Melody made some little clucking noises, picking up and carefully extending a tidbit of sliced apple toward it. "Com'on sweetie... we're okay, really. Never mind the sneakers. Are you lost, honey? Hmmm? Com'on out."
And the thing came, squeaking one more time as it took an uncertain step towards the extended treat.
Ochre swore quietly, low under his breath. "Some emergency this is."
Pet skunks, he imagined, would be surgically de-scented early on in their rare and no doubt pampered domestic careers.
"Just can it up, Ochre, honey," Melody warned, in the same coaxing, friendly tone. "Lose the glasses – you're scaring it. Com'on, that's it, punkin' – we're not so bad, really. You like apples? It's a really good apple. Hmmm? There you go..."
Ochre watched as Melody cautiously placed the bit of fruit onto the deck with an outstretched arm, then peeled off the gloves and her mask and goggles in quick succession, revealing herself as human after all, another ploy that seemed to work.
In less than a minute, Melody had the skunk eating right out of her hand.
"I think the crisis is over," Ochre reported sourly, grunting as he wriggled to back himself out of the cramped underside of the platform, giving Melody time and space to work her magic with the crit. In another minute she emerged from under the catwalk as well, cradling the skunk in her arms, something that suddenly seemed –
It was almost a disappointment. Ochre pushed his silly-goggles up onto his forehead, listening as Grey reported the culprit had been taken into custody. Colonel White acknowledged the deed, and immediately ordered the quarantine cancelled.
"I'll be right down," Colonel White advised, and signed off. In a somewhat better mood, anyway. The Colonel was likely still in Sickbay with Fawn reassuring him that Scarlet would be fine. It had been long enough now that Scarlet probably had a pulse and a respiration rate back. Now the skunk was taken care of, the hangar lockdown was history and Cloudbase would once again be fully operational, no damage done.
Colonel White would be much happier.
"Awwww... look at that little face!" Melody gushed. "She’s so cute!”
"How do you know it's a girl?" Ochre deliberately resisted an impulse to reach out and touch the thing. A novelty item for sure, someone's pet skunk of all things, here on Cloudbase, of all places. It would be the Topic of Discussion in the Amber Room for days, eclipsing brutal-her-captain's sneakers and lecherous innuendo alike.
"Because I'm not seeing any boy-parts under here, that's how," Melody responded, still in the absurd infant-babble tone of voice. "Now, aren't you glad that you didn't shoot it?"
Ochre rolled his eyes. In feminine circles, Cute was impossible to fight and he knew better than to try. "Yes, " he intoned dutifully. "I'm glad I didn't shoot it now. Not that we knew about it being a pet at the time. Things still could have been worse." Ochre picked up the volleyball net and mesh bag from the spot Melody had left them and followed along as she moved back towards the Deck Officer's Security office.
Melody was cooing softly at the small animal in her arms, talking silly baby-talk at it as Colonel White came through that security door into the hangar proper, approaching them as they closed that distance, and Ochre relaxed in the aftermath of the not-such-a-crisis after all.
"Her name's Sikako – that's what the tag says." Melody read the information on one of the ID tags suspended from the collar. "That's a pretty name, sweetie. What else have you got here?"
"Look for the owner's name and address," Ochre said. "And don't get attached. We're not keeping it."
"Certainly not, Captain." Colonel White stopped just short of Melody Angel and friend, eyeing the creature curiously as it chirred softly, squeaking as Melody stroked and tickled its belly. "Who would keep one of these as a pet?"
"Her rabies shots are all up to date. And this other tag says: I belong to Sherri-Ann Sommers –"
"Sommers?!" Colonel White let out a surprised exclamation. "Some relation to our Doctor Sommers?"
"It could be, sir," Ochre mused aloud. "Spectrum Security found him in the middle of running a few personal errands when the crisis broke – he was rushed to Magenta's helijet, picked up and flown directly to Manicouagan – it was an urgent hurry and Sommers must've had the thing with him. Family pet, I'd guess. It went along for the ride, obviously."
"And then Blue brought that very same helijet back to Cloudbase, leaving Magenta at the Expo site for post-ops," Colonel White completed the likely sequence of events with a grumble. "Well it certainly explains how the creature managed to get here. Someone might have mentioned it."
Ochre shrugged. "I'd have to assume it had low priority. Sommers would have practically forgotten the crit when the reactor went to overload."
"She was scared and hiding under the seats, weren't you, honey?" Melody coddled the critter, purring. "It was an emergency. Silly Mysterons, going to blow up the eastern seaboard, they just don't care about little pet skunks, do they?"
Colonel White was just reaching out a tentative hand to touch the pet as all around the flight deck, vents began to bang and hum, the quarantine standing down, the systems coming back on-line. Sikako squealed and squirmed in Melody's arms at the loud noise.
Melody just managed to hang onto the thing. "Calm, calm, calm, honey – it's okay, just some noises, you're fine, sweetie… we'd better get you somewhere quiet and make a phone call – we don't want to have to go chasing after you again now, do we?"
And then –
Ochre was the first to see it, in the very same instant that Sikako started to chitter excitedly, and clawed her way up onto Melody's shoulder to fix those bright, black little eyes and busy nose the same direction that he happened to be looking.
Ochre was not excited by what he saw.
No, he thought with a horrid, sinking feeling. It wasn't possible.
Except that it was possible and the scenario flashed through his skull as vividly as if he'd been there.
Dr. Sommers' pet critter loose and on the prowl inside the helijet. An unattended helijet, at the Expo site, there on the edge of the bush. Home to another skunk – a wild one, scenting out and checking up on the visitor in its territory. The very same one that was –
The very same one that was suddenly emerging from the shadows there behind Melody and Colonel White, frightened by the loud clanging of vents out of its own hiding hole, a great, waddling brute of a skunk coming at their group with its tail already raised...
Ochre reacted without thinking, dropping nets and gear, leaping forward on a reflex so sudden that the silly-goggles fell back down over his face, obstructing his vision as he bodily shoved both the Colonel and Melody out of his way. A guttural yell was welling up in his own throat as he tried to make some sort of an effective wall out of himself before the thing let loose…
Twenty miles, he thought. Months...
Terracotta had advised that the things always gave warning – the crits stamped their feet, they stood on their forepaws, did some sort of a song and dance for their intended victims. For a brief second he'd been hoping on some level that the thing would simply back off if he challenged it outright. But he was reading otherwise in the skunk's stance and in its bold approach, seeing in its little animal-brain arrogance that the thing was on strange turf and in bizarre circumstances, and had had quite enough of all that nonsense.
Moreover, it knew that it possessed an unrivalled sort of arsenal.
Skunks had no natural enemies. Skunks were not afraid of anything.
On another plane of thought, Ochre was realizing too, that the colonel had cancelled the quarantine. And at that realization, some portion of his panicking conscious/unconscious mind had just decided that it would make him a martyr and throw him atop the grenade.
Except that he didn't get that far.
Distantly he heard Melody opening up with a surprised shriek, heard Colonel White begin to bellow an outraged exclamation at what could only have seemed like an unwarranted physical assault and then, in an eerie, terrifying kind of slow motion, he saw it as the crit stopped, fixed its glittering, beady, evil black eyes on him and contorted, swinging its backside around, taking aim.
The brute sprayed.
Ochre pulled up short, as abruptly as if it had been a shotgun blast that had caught him squarely in the chest.
It didn't hurt.
But he was stopped as dead cold in his tracks as if he'd run into some sort of solid and invisible barrier. He blinked behind the nose-glasses, horrified, paralyzed and instinctively holding his breath as the warm and oily miasma enveloped him.
He fell to his knees, overcome by the noxious fumes, worse, oh, god! – so much worse fresh out of the beastie than he'd ever experienced it in the brief drive-by aftermath of summer roadkill –
"Nuhhh. Urrghhh. Gaahhhh…" He choked and sputtered, losing valuable air, wasting his short-term ability to speak on helpless babble instead of a proper warning. "Vents..." he wheezed. His eyes began to water, as the full extent of what the skunk had done to him made itself blatantly manifest. "Shutdown! Grey – the vents... aaaccckkk... Terri! Seal the hangar..." It was all he could manage before he ran out of air –
The situation had just gone from Prevention to Containment.
Instantly, the com went live with voices.
Terracotta shrieked: "Full quarantine! Engineering! Cancel that cancellation! Stand up the quarantine! Stand it up again! Now, Toby!"
"Seal the hangar!" Grey shouted. "Priority One, code 926 – shut those vents down!"
"Two!?" Blue squeaked in total disbelief. "Two?! I brought two of them back from Manicouagan?!"
"Polecat one, Spectrum zero!" Symphony hooted, dissolving into a fit of helpless giggling.
And the skunk –
That brute of a skunk just stood there, with its nose all twitching, staring in Ochre's direction, standing its ground, all complacent and self-satisfied, triumphant and arrogant and smug....
Ochre suddenly ceased to care that he didn't want to breathe the fouled air.
His nose, sinuses, mouth and throat and lungs stung and recoiled under the olfactory assault as he drew a reluctant but necessary lungful of the noxious atmosphere, immediately contaminating his entire respiratory system. Gagging and spluttering, livid with fury, Ochre sprang to his feet, startled the crit and then screeched his musk-tainted outrage as he leapt into forward motion intent on inflicting some mayhem of his own.
"SMUG, STINKING LITTLE SON OF A BITCH!"
The skunk squealed alarm, turned and ran for its life...
It had not been a conscious decision.
Melody Angel, with pet critter in arms, had been physically spun around when Ochre had bodily forced his way past her and the Colonel.
And she'd seen what had made him move, and moved herself, diving behind Colonel White, making an abrupt 90 degree change in her course and sprinting for the nearest emergency decompression shelter without a single modicum of deliberate consideration.
The shelters were scattered all around the flight deck – little more than a stand-up booth-like compartment, any shelter provided a safe haven in the event of a sudden loss of air pressure within the hangar. They each had capacity for two, maybe three persons, and were equipped with an independent, several hours-worth supply of oxygen.
She sealed herself and Sikako into one, and tried to slow the hammering of her heart in the wake of that narrow escape.
The com was telling her all she needed to know, and that her instinct to run had been correct.
The worst had happened.
"He's hit!" she heard Blue exclaim. "They're both hit!"
Melody pressed her face to the shelter's viewport, looking to see what state of affairs she'd left behind.
Colonel White was standing stock still, not a single inch removed from where he'd been. Stunned to immobility, frozen to the spot in horror, the Colonel was learning firsthand why the common striped skunk had a world-wide, universally renowned reputation for self defense and few, if any, natural enemies.
Ochre, at least, had known what to expect, and had, from the outset, been prepared – body, mind and soul – for the very worst-case scenario.
Now Ochre was in hot pursuit of the perpetrator. Ochre had dodged around an unmoving Colonel White to scoop up the fallen net and was completely narrow-focused, single-minded and looking like a deadly dangerous psychotic killer in his nose-glasses and backward baseball cap.
His quarry disappeared, bee-lining a path under the nearest helijet. Melody watched from inside the emergency shelter as Ochre dove after, heedless of the low overhead, skinning his knees on the metal deck-plates and cursing volubly, a stream of coherent invective over the headset that damned the skunk's ancestral lineage and included numerous death-threats.
As if the thing understood English.
"Don't you dare, Fraser!" she yelled. "Kill it and I swear to God I'll never sleep with you again!"
The words were out and gone, and before they'd even reached her own ears she realized what she'd just shouted on the open, Base-wide frequency.
"Eek!" she squeaked. "Did you hear me, Fraser!? I'll never ever SPEAK to you again!"
There was silence, from every electronic quarter out there. She'd just diverted everyone's attention.
"You haven't slept with me yet, Jones!" Ochre yelled back. "But that's the most promising Freudian slip I think I've ever heard!"
That was true enough, and a far better improvised cover than she'd managed. Had to admire that quick wit under the circumstances. It would at least look plausible in the transcripts. A fact, besides. To date, snoozing had simply never been involved. She immediately changed the subject.
"Don't you dare hurt that poor little crit!" she yelled again.
"Poor little crit?! " Ochre was outraged. "What'd'ya mean 'the poor little crit?!' That poor little crit's trying to make sure that nobody sleeps with me ever again!"
In the background on Grey's channel, she was sure she could hear Symphony howling.
"It washes out!" It was all she could think to say, though it wasn't likely to change Ochre's current state-of-mind. "It's not permanent!"
"Are you volunteering to scrub my back, Jones?"
"You have a one-track mind, Fraser!"
"Dammit!" Ochre cursed again. "Come back here you miserable reeking vermin!"
"It doesn't speak English!"
"No? Of course not! Manicouagan's in Quebec!" Ochre's retort was all acid sarcasm. "I’ve been there! Bête noire misérable!" Ochre yelled. "Tabernak d'estie!"
For a second time, the com went quiet.
"Was zat supposed to be French?!" Destiny asked. "Where did you learn zat?"
It confirmed for Melody that Lieutenant Green, did indeed, have the situation on general Base-com. Another worst-case scenario, she thought with dismay, considering the content of at least one of her own unedited utterances.
"Supposed to be?! It IS French!" Ochre was offended. "And I learned zat in Montreal, working undercover drugs and vice."
"You are sure?"
"Mais oui, Mam’zelle Destiny!" Ochre answered, irrationally irritated that anyone would question him on that. "And it's bad words - learned from some of very the best bad word speakers in the city!” A loud bang followed, a missed strike with the net, Melody guessed. “What is this? High School? Friggin' English Lit, damn Chemistry, and now remedial French lessons! Damn!" Ochre grunted and cursed, having run into some obstacle outside of Melody's line of sight. "Very bad words! If you don't like them, then how do you say: come back here you stinking, freaking little pipsqueak skunk!?"
"They are called moufette," Destiny supplied. “Or sconse or putois. And you would say: Putain de merde de bestiole puante.”
“I don’t have time to learn that right now!” Ochre protested. “You didn’t even use moufette or sconse!”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Ochre! It doesn’t speak French either!” Melody interjected, because it was a totally pointless discussion. “It’s there – Fraser! It’s under the helijet again!”
“I see it!” Ochre yelled.
“Don’t let it near the tantalus!” Melody warned. “I don’t think that one’s tame!”
“No kidding? Never would’ve guessed!”
Ochre came back into her limited field of view, visible through the opened access hatches on either side of the helijet. As the skunk scurried beneath the aircraft, Ochre leapt up into the open passenger/cargo bay, charged through and launched himself down to the deck on the near side, startling the skunk again as he cut off its escape route.
The thing came to a snarling halt, hissing and stamping with its tail up one more time; another clear warning for the adversary in its path.
Ochre didn’t even flinch. Melody held her breath.
“Go ahead, Mephisto.” Ochre growled right back at the critter, his voice dropping to a deadly monotone, undaunted now that the skunk had already done its worst.
He brandished his net.
“Make my day...”
Captain Grey’s fingers were clenched, white-knuckled on the edge of the viewport’s sill as he listened intently to the background chatter over his com. Chaos was reigning supreme in Engineering as the techs scrambled to reinstate the aborted quarantine. Terracotta was dispensing rapid-fire instruction, a long and breathless list of which systems to override manually and in what sequence, doing her utmost to see that the contamination didn’t spread outside the hangar.
Down below in that hangar, Ochre was engaged in a High Noon standoff. But that didn’t last.
As Ochre held his ground, the skunk backed away, uneasy, perhaps having never encountered a victim that hadn’t succumbed immediately to its defenses. It turned and bolted beneath the helijet again avoiding the net that Ochre sent crashing down after it.
“I thought you said these things were slow?!”
“Relative term,” Grey responded, knowing Terracotta was too busy to reply. “If it was a squirrel you’d never be able to catch it. You’ve still got longer legs.”
“And a lot more altitude! Is everyone watching this thing?”
Immediately, a chorus of helpful direction flooded the channel – all of the Deck Officer’s staff were trying to be useful at a distance – because absolutely no one was volunteering to get in there and help to chase the skunk down.
Even Melody – Melody-Nerves-of-Steel-Magnolia - had run, had gone all instinct-maternal and had sought immediate shelter, abandoning both Captain and Colonel alike to their respective fates, saving her crit instead.
As the skunk fled, Ochre charged for the helijet again, up and through the cargo bay, that being the shortest route to the other side. Following the chaotic instruction over com, he dodged left, skirting around a rack of tools and emerging on the far side into a small cul-de-sac of storage lockers and freight bins at the same moment that the skunk arrived in the same spot.
It was an area too small for him to swing the extended pole of his net. He dropped it and dove for the crit instead, his big neoprene gloved hands outstretched and reaching to seize and immobilize the beast before it could reach the narrow space underneath the bin –
It vanished under one of the freight containers, and Ochre slid crashing into the side of the thing, cracking his forehead against the bottom edge and swearing aloud one more time.
"Somebody tell me it came out the other side!" Ochre yelled, nursing his brow and backing up to peer under the bin, nose-glasses notwithstanding. He spun, turning to recover his net and launched himself on another course around the bin.
The chorus of voices provided direction. The skunk was running along the base of the starboard bulkhead and Ochre was right behind it. It came up against another set of storage lockers and performed a rapid about face to scurry back the other direction as Ochre skidded into an abrupt maneuver to compensate; he managed to get the pole-end of the net jammed against the bulkhead, minimally blocking the skunk’s line of retreat.
Grey watched as it scampered over the pole, with its back all arched and hissing audibly enough for Ochre’s mike to pick up the noise – it ran another few feet as Ochre pivoted and brought the netted end of the pole down again in its path.
In full rout now, it changed direction one more time and bolted straight between Ochre’s legs, heading for open ground.
Ochre spun so fast he tripped over the other end of the pole and fell, landing flat on his backside as the crit opened a wide lead on its pursuer.
“Go Keystone!” Symphony – still tittering, despite the situation – cheered Ochre on as he picked himself up and resumed the chase.
Grey had a half a mind to tell Terracotta to just send all of the tainted air to her quarters and seal it in there. Must have been the rural background – perhaps Symphony had been through this sort of thing before. Certainly she seemed to be having some difficulty in taking the circumstances seriously.
Though it was hard not to laugh at the lunatic sight that Ochre presented in the goggles and the neoprene. Especially as both he and the skunk charged right past a still-unmoving Colonel White and back again – to and fro several times, as if they were trapped in some surreal mechanical shooting gallery in a circus sideshow…
The chase took itself back to the locker cul-de-sac and under the storage bin, around to the bulkhead and then came back again into the main hangar.
It was perhaps four minutes into the chase when Ochre skidded around the corner and charged into open space again – where he trod suddenly onto the raw egg that had been left to roll about the deck plates, slipped in the resultant goo and came crashing down with his net extended.
And caught the thing!
Astonished, Ochre nevertheless scrambled forward on all fours, slapped one heavily gloved hand down on the back of the skunk's neck and held on while the crit had snarled and squirmed and tried to get its tail up one more time.
"No way, Stinker. Not again, you won't! You're under arrest, you reeking, slinking little vermin!" Keeping its head in vise-like grip, Ochre snugged the mesh of the fishing net tight around the skunk, immobilizing it in a curled fetal posture. Coming awkwardly to his feet to stumble with the long handle of the pole dragging across the deck, Ochre was finally able to nab the thick canvas laundry tote with his other hand.
Grey watched as the captive went into the bag without any further pomp and ceremony. Ochre panted and cursed as he secured the tote closed.
"How bad is it?" Grey asked tersely. "Ochre – give me a weather report! What’s it like down there?!"
"How the hell do you think it is?!" Ochre coughed, spitting the words, obviously wanting to spit more than just that. "Dammit! You can't keep this air, Brad! You’re gonna have to vent it!"
"He's right," Terracotta said from beside his elbow, looking down into the hangar. "Get it out of the carrier, before it spreads any further. We can't clean it, and all of the air inside the Base isn't anywhere near enough to dilute it."
"You've got the codes and the authority. Quit wasting time! Override the airlocks and purge the flight deck!"
"Set it up Terri – as fast as you can." Grey conceded to the inevitable. There had been no choice, not since the very instant the thing had sprayed. "Ochre – get to a shelter. Is the Colonel okay?"
"Hell if I know! I’ve been busy! Why am I the only one doing anything around here?!" Ochre complained, but went that direction, realizing only then perhaps, that Colonel White hadn't moved since the initial contamination of the hangar. "Sir!" Ochre shouted at the Colonel from a mere a foot away, and at last the Colonel blinked, as if roused from some interminable nightmare. He looked at Ochre, eyes fluttering in a slow recognition that the worst of the offending scent was standing right there before him, and recoiled from it. "Sir, you've gotta move! They're gonna purge the hanger!"
Terracotta nodded, and cleared her seat at the workstation when the procedure was programmed. Grey leaned over the keyboard, punching in his authorizations, finalizing it with a thumbprint scan.
He closed his eyes, exhaling a deep breath, the deed done. He went back to the viewport. In her entire history, Cloudbase had never had to purge her decks. His written reports were going to have to be longwinded and hellish in detail, trying to explain this one.
Throughout the flight deck, the strobes started to spin and the klaxons to wail. An automated and pre-recorded voice warned of imminent decompression as the cycle kicked in, starting to countdown...
Finally, not without a disapproving curse, Ochre seized the Colonel's sleeve, dragged Spectrum's stunned and unresisting Commander-in-Chief physically to the first decompression shelter he came to, shoved him within and sealed the unit. Then Ochre sprinted for one of his own, his bagged crit in the other hand. With one more disgusted expletive for the circumstances in general, Ochre shut himself into another shelter as the pre-recorded voice continued its count –
"Damn close quarters in here!" Ochre gagged and swore again after a brief moment. "And they thought my sneakers were bad!"
"You should've given it a unit of its own," Grey said. "Tell me now if you want to abort – we can't stop the countdown after it hits ten seconds."
"If I have to put up with it, so can the damn crit!"
Ochre was still outraged. Perhaps more outraged now that he'd stopped moving and had the time to think about being mad.
Stupid and stubborn mad.
"Your call, Captain." Though it wasn't likely to matter, Grey realized. It was Ochre that had taken the hit. The skunk itself was uncontaminated.
Point of no return. It was irrevocable now.
"Oh, just shut up, Brutus!" Grey heard it as Ochre swatted the canvas bag. "I've had enough of --- aacckkkk! Gahhh...." Ochre choked and sputtered yet again, wheezing into a pained silence.
"Ooops..." Blue said, in a slow realization and then all empathy for his stricken colleague.
“Polecat two…” Symphony dared to say, confirming the suspected point-blank range event when the silence went on. Though she had finally stopped giggling.
A bell went off, different than the warning shrill of the klaxon. Vibration rumbled though the flight deck as the outer airlock engaged, unsealing without benefit of the enclosed hydraulic aircraft lift that normally prevented the hangar's atmosphere from escaping. Silver moonlight beamed into the yawning aperture. The strident high-pitch of the klaxons waned with the sudden drop of air pressure as Cloudbase deliberately expelled the tainted air of its entire flight deck –
"Ochre?" Grey queried a few seconds later, concerned at the prolonged quiet. "Ochre?!"
Evacuation wasn't any longer an option for Captain Ochre, trapped within his cramped – and freshly contaminated – safety shelter.
"The little beggar reloaded...."
His reports were almost finalized.
Colonel White keyed the last touches into the console of the Control Desk, saved the file, forwarded copies to HQ and the archives, and then cleared the system, all the while enjoying the unaccustomed presence and warmth of the small creature currently perched on his shoulder. The skunk was a lovely little animal, really, despite the reputation and recent events.
Sikako had long and luxurious fur, immaculately brushed and lightly fragranced with some sort of pleasant little girl scent, courtesy of eight-year-old Sherri-Ann Sommers, who had both noted and remarked – all in innocence, he was sure – that Sikako in her black fur and white warning stripes, complemented his uniform very nicely. The young lady was presently taking a tour of Cloudbase along with her father, Captain Grey and Technician Terracotta – the carrier now being blessedly clean and clear of far less delectable aromas.
He was still astounded that something so small (for even Brutus had weighed in at no more than the average house-cat) could possibly have been behind the sort of havoc that the two critters between them had so unintentionally visited upon the carrier.
Of course, no one had gotten into the helijet far enough to find what was already there.
Sikako had been housed in a stock-standard pet carrier, tucked behind the rearmost seats in the passenger compartment. In retrospect it seemed likely that vibration from the helijet had unlatched the pet carrier's door, and Sikako had thereafter been loose in the passenger bay, alone and looking for Dr. Sommers. Everyone doubted she'd left the aircraft, preferring to remain in the vicinity of her travel crate. Which meant in turn that Brutus had to have boarded of his own volition at some point during which the helijet had been unattended at the Expo site, sniffing out the unexpected newcomer in his territory.
Both must simply have hidden when Scarlet – finally freed from the wreckage of the reactor crate – had been rushed within and Blue had flown directly back to Cloudbase with the helijet. Brutus had evidently abandoned the aircraft post-haste after lock-through and repressurization - sometime between the departure of the med-staff and the arrival of the flight mechanics – and the wild little creature had no doubt been horrified to find the Expo construction site had somehow vanished, magically replaced by the vast unknown of Cloudbase's hangar deck.
The true wonder was that the thing hadn't sprayed right then and there.
The flight mechanics had discovered Sikako loose in the helijet, and immediately sounded the alarm, presuming the pet was a wild stowaway, a far more natural assumption than was the possibility of a misplaced exotic pet.
The rest was now a piece of colorful Cloudbase history.
Colonel White had written off the hangar decompression as a drill; the first one and every single one of the following three consecutive purgings, recompressions and disinfections of the deck that had taken place in his absence. Symphony Angel had in the end done something useful (he had read the transcripts) and had provided the maintenance crews with a relatively simple home-remedy for the removal of skunk musk, a concoction of dish soap, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, all of which had been scrounged in sufficient supply to make the difference.
The deck crew had scrambled. Melody Angel had assigned herself the task of piloting the helijet off base, having located the pet carrier and subsequently re-installed Sikako in it. Colonel White had been provided with a decontamination suit and a respirator – for he had caught the overspray that had missed Ochre and had in that moment become a secondary source of contamination. Thus temporarily quarantined, he had strapped himself into a plastic-sheet covered seat in the cargo bay. He’d stayed out of the way, very quietly uncritical of the proceedings, as he’d not been of much help himself at all for the duration of the crisis, paralysed as he’d been, stunned beyond all reasonable belief at the sheer potency of the small amount of spray that had actually hit him. He had been aware only that he couldn’t breathe; he hadn’t been cognizant enough to have even offered to hold the canvas bag open for Ochre, once the Captain had apprehended the creature.
As for Captain Ochre –
Captain Ochre, despite his misfortune and tainted condition, had been adamant that his decompression shelter not under any circumstances be opened again while on Cloudbase, damned if he was going to be the one responsible for seeing all the effort go for naught. So the crew had simply followed the Captain's orders, unbolted and released the shelter in its entirety from its deck anchors, then loaded and secured it as a single unopened unit into the helijet's cargo bay. They had thoughtfully and generously included an additional oxygen tank for the Captain.
By the time the helijet touched down at Manicouagan again, poor Ochre – very nearly silenced at last by the noxious atmosphere within the shelter – might well have changed his mind about his chosen course. Ochre had surfaced at destination, his complexion fairly mimicking the color of Green's uniform, dragging his critter-in-a-bag with him as he'd wobbled unsteadily away from his self-enforced entombment, gulping after the clean air of Manicouagan's wilderness as if it were life itself. Managing finally to find his feet long enough, Ochre had up-ended that bag and shaken the skunk out of it. The creature had emerged, likewise staggering almost as badly as its captor had been, and waddled sidelong a few feet before it too had stopped to sniff the air deeply.
"Perdu-toi, Muffy!" Ochre had shooed the crit away, in the some of worst pidgin-French Colonel White had ever heard. "Au revoir, Pépé! Move it! Get lost! Fous le camp!" And when the thing hadn’t moved with the verbal encouragement, Ochre had taken a threatening step its direction. “Allez-y! Take a hike, Vermin! Scram!”
It was only well afterwards that Colonel White had realized that Ochre had never called the thing twice by the same name. It was Captain Grey that had dubbed the thing Brutus in his reports.
And so Brutus had gone, waddling away into the dawn, without a single parting glance backward or an additional insolent flick of his tail.
Magenta had, of course, been warned ahead that they were coming, provided with all the pertinent details. Dr. Sommers had collected his daughter's beloved pet, uncomfortable for the difficulties incurred, but still relieved and grateful that Sikako had been returned safely, and hadn't been irretrievably lost in Manicouagan's wilderness.
A bonfire had been prepared in advance of their arrival, and Colonel White had gladly participated right alongside as Ochre had stripped to the skivvies and incinerated every last article of his contaminated clothing. He had happily tossed his own uniform into the flames, and afterwards merely followed directions as the Expo site foreman had provided them with shower facilities and then sympathetically delivered professional de-scenting products for their unfortunate circumstances.
Skunkings, as it happened, were not unknown thereabouts.
His own cleansing had gone far more quickly and effectively than had Captain Ochre's, who, after all, had borne the brunt of things. He was still writing up a commendation for the Captain, for services rendered above and beyond the usual call of duty.
He had also, more pragmatically, given Ochre the week off, with very specific instructions not to return to Cloudbase until such time as he was more publicly presentable. Which was why, Colonel White thought with a resigned sigh, picking up the expense report sitting on his console, there was an invoice for several nights accommodation at the 5-star, very upscale Château Frontenac in Quebec City, where - the explanatory remarks noted - that if such a fine establishment could tolerate the good Captain's presence, then it was very likely that return to Cloudbase was, perhaps, also possible.
Colonel White had sent Melody Angel to ascertain and verify the Captain's present status, a task that he imagined was apt to have involved close proximity, along with the fine wine, the hot-tub and the fireplace that the room charges detailed.
Colonel White just authorized the expense, no questions asked, and sent it back to the Purser's Office for remittance of payment.
On schedule, the doors at the port side of the Control room opened, the guided tour reaching its end. Sikako took immediate notice; she scampered down from his shoulder, across the console, dropped onto one of the raised stools on the other side, and from there down to the floor. She scurried after that to young Sherri-Ann Sommers, who scooped the creature up and gave her an affectionate hug.
"Thank you, Colonel White," the little girl said. "For the tour and everything else."
"And our apologies for any – inconvenience, Colonel White," Doctor Sommers added after that, having somewhat more comprehension what events had taken place than his daughter did.
"Well, Doctor – and Miss Sommers – there was nothing that happened here that we can really blame on Sikako. She turned out not to be the problem at all, as I'm sure Captain Grey and Technician Terracotta must have explained. In the final analysis, I think we can safely say that Sikako actually served to put our personnel on alert – or the consequences for Cloudbase might have been somewhat more… widespread than they were."
"Still, Colonel White –"
"There's no further discussion necessary on that point, Doctor Sommers. Spectrum would much rather extend its gratitude to you for your assistance in averting a problem of, shall we say, greater magnitude than the incident on the hangar deck. Which reminds me – I have a question for Miss Sherri-Ann."
"Yes sir?" The young girl stood very straight with her pet in arms.
"Melody Angel – the pilot who helped to recover Sikako – has asked me if you could explain how you found the name for your little friend. It's very unusual."
Sherri-Ann beamed, pleased to have been asked and snuggled Sikako more closely. "Everyone asks that," she said. "Sikako is named after my hometown, in Illinois."
"Isn't that odd," Colonel White mused. "Such a name didn't turn up on any net search when Melody checked."
Dr. Sommers and his daughter both smiled more widely. "It's an old version of the present-day name," Dr. Sommers said. "Go ahead, you can tell them, Sherri."
"Sikako is an Indian word," the youngster said. "Though no one really knows how it might have been spelled, since the Indians didn't have a written language. It means great or strong. It also means skunk. And my hometown was built on a site that the Indians had named in honour of the skunk."
"I'm from Illinois," Captain Grey remarked. "But I've never heard of a place called Sikako. Small town?"
"Not really. Rather a big town, actually. The name was somewhat changed from the original," Doctor Sommers smiled. "The aboriginal peoples had great respect for the common skunk. But I think you've probably heard of a town by the name of Chicago, Captain."
"Really?" Colonel White raised a brow, and glanced at Captain Grey, who was the one who would be most astonished by that bit of information.
"Chicago means skunk?!" Grey was startled, and he looked from Sherri-Ann to her father and back in surprise. "That's my hometown, too. Why haven't I heard that before?"
"The city fathers prefer to let it be known as the Windy City," Sommers commented. "But –"
"But it's really the City of Skunks!" Sherri-Ann completed the sentence for her father with a giggle, obviously delighted to know something that the Spectrum elders hadn't.
Grey shook his head. "Sikako... Chicago." He tested the phonetics of the two words. "That almost makes sense." Grey reached over to scratch behind Sikako's ear. "If it means great and strong, I guess that's okay too. And I'd have to say that the respect for Sikako's kind is very well earned, besides."
Sikako's nose worked vigorously, and she squeaked just once. Whatever that meant.
"We'll take that as a yes," Grey smiled.
Colonel White merely nodded, having learned his own respect for the little critters the hard way. “Indeed,” he said.
Very much indeed…
Acknowledgements: (though I'm sure I've missed a few, as I visited many fine websites in the course of doing the research for this story and didn’t always remember to document where I’d been....)
A very big thank you to Chris Bishop – for all of her assistance with the good and the bad French used in this little just-for-fun tale.
And an equally big Thanks to Doc Brown, for beta-reading services and helpful suggestions rendered….
And as for the Research:
OOPS - Website: Owners Of Pet Skunks - Where I first learned the word 'sikako' and hence had a working title for this little tale and found the story behind the City of Skunks. I highly recommend a view through their photo gallery!
University of Michigan Website: animaldiversity - for lots of wonderful information on mephitis mephitis
Website: ladywildlife.com - for more information on the common striped skunk
Chicago Public Library Website - where I learned that: "the name Chicago is derived from the Indians.... and the name comes from the Indian word for either wild onion or skunk, but some historians believe the word the word chicago denoted 'strong' or ‘great’. ...M.M. Quaife in his book Checagou, asserts that the significance of the word was anything great or powerful.”