“Sensors indicate Lascaria off the starboard flank, Captain!”, Ensign Paredes stated, a shrill, triumphant tone in her voice.
The purply-green planet loomed ahead of the AFS Lodestar, a sleek gray and silver spy ship, the pride of the Anurian Federation, which for 100 millenia, had been engaged in a series of protracted wars with the Lascats.
The Lascats, like the Spartans of antiquity, were a warrior species for whom war was a raison d’etre. Yet, like the Jesuits, the Lascats also placed a high premium on education and had managed, despite their relative lack of material resources on their own planet, to achieve a number of remarkable breakthroughs in the areas of engineering, biotechnology, and genetics. Thus, you had a planet of warriors, doctors, and professors united together in the belief that their civilization had the mission of bringing as much of the known universe under its “protection” as possible. They saw themselves as providing a necessary and edifying service for those “unenlightened” species who stood to benefit from their guidance and authority.
There stood out, like a sore thumb, however, the Federation, whose society, while built upon the premise of a free and educated citizenry, also instilled in its people the need for self-defense whenever it and its interests were threatened by an outside, belligerent power.
So it was that the Lodestar was in the midst of completing its mission. A mission that had taken it far from home. For three months, the Lodestar had sailed stealthily across the far reaches of the Etherea, a celestial “no-man’s land” that separated the Federation from Lascaria and its satellites.
Captain Rachel Mukherjee took the news of Lascaria’s sighting calmly, through pursed lips. She was a tall, slim, copper-colored woman with close-cut black, silky hair. Her face wore a look of steadied concentration. Her uniform was an indigo blue bodysuit with gold Federation insignia and name plate above the left breast slit pocket. Rachel rose from her seat on the bridge, where her coat with its thin golden shoulder boards attesting to her rank was draped over her chair, and walked over to where her first lieutenant, Shire Larson, was peering over the initial data findings from the Masurian Region of Lascaria, where it was long rumored that a number of bizarre, genetic experiments had been deposited there.
"Captain, these data seem to show the existence of various life forms not exhibiting Lascarian characteristics nor that of any hitherto known species on their planet. If you would take a look at this particular point in the schematic," Rachel looked it over with her small, magnifying device, "there appear to be dense numbers of indeterminate life forms scattered across the region."
"Lieutenant, could you bring Dr. Suzuki over here? I'd like to have her take on this. As far as I can tell, the Masurian Region is very well forested, with vegetation centered around the mountains here and here," she pointed with her right forefinger to the upper section of the schematic --- "as well as rivers and lakes along the northern and western sectors. Yet, no signs of Lascarian settlement."
Moments later, a petite, middle-aged woman with olive-skin complexion and shoulder length salt and pepper hair stepped forward. Like Rachel, Dr. Suzuki was wearing a bodysuit, but in her case, Dr. Suzuki wore her white jacket with yellow braid on her shoulders and a slender silver insignia over her right breast, signifying her status as a physician.
"You called for me, Captain?" Dr. Ariko Suzuki asked casually.
"Yes, Doctor. Look at the latest scan we've made of the Masurian Region. It's time for me to give you this letter from Federation Command. It contains your orders for the mission you are about to undertake in Lascaria."
So, this was it, Ariko thought to herself. This wasn't to be another exploratory exercise in which her role was little more than that of prescribing medicine for sore stomachs, headaches, chronic restlessness (a byproduct from extended interstellar travel), offering psychological counselling, and treating the occasional wounds incurred by crew whenever paths were crossed with the occasional Lascarian cruiser.
Dr. Suzuki was to be "inserted" into Lascaria for the explicit purpose of uncovering the full truth behind the genetic experiments there. The letter mentioned that she would be given "the perfect cover" upon receipt of her orders. She looked up questioningly at Captain Mukherjee, who arched her right eyebrow.
"Doctor, we haven't much more time here. The cloaking device will hold up for only another hour and then we'll have to make our way homeward because fuel will soon be at a premium. We can't risk being discovered by the Lascarians without sending you off first." Rachel now spoke into her hand-sized communications device, which she took off her utility belt round her waist. "Specialist Mitchell, meet me and Dr. Suzuki in the X-room below. Codename Makeover in effect. Repeat: Codename Makeover in effect."
"Pardon me, Captain. You were seeking my opinion about these lifeforms in the Masurian Region. Well, from what I can glean from the data, at least a one of the species is a large quadriped. Massive bodies. Carnivores. And a couple of other life forms may be akin to a long extinct species of kyreets or deer - as well as an equipoid. That is, horse."
"Thank you, Doctor. I'll make a note of that, " Captain Mukherjee answered as the 2 women rode the elevator together to the lower deck.
* * * * *
Specialist Mitchell, though 3 years out of the academy, was on his first interstellar mission. A muscular, solidly built man (6'1" in his bare feet) who played hard and strove to excel, he had developed an expertise for advanced genetics. For that reason, he had been entrusted with the key to the X-room, a special part of the Lodestar where the future of the Federation might well hang in the balance.
Inside the X-room was a small chamber (barely large enough to hold one fully-grown man) surrounded by an array of technical equipment. Captain Mukherjee stood with Dr. Suzuki as she stripped before entering the chamber. Specialist Mitchell sat on Rachel's right, checking that everything was in working order.
"Doctor, this is rather new technology and so far, it's been tested on 40 test subjects. All volunteers. Of that number, 33 died straightaway, 2 lived for a week afterward, 4 we had to kill because they had become unmanageable, and 1 survived. And..." Rachel paused, wondering if she were sending Dr. Suzuki on a fool's errand. Yet, she believed fully in the Federation and felt that the Federation Command wouldn't squander lives and resources on a mission if they didn't feel that had a measurable chance of success.
"And? Captain? " Ariko make a wry smile. "I couldn't think of a better sacrifice to make than myself. The Lascarians have caused enough grief in my life." She thought of her dead husband, who had been killed 2 years earlier by an attacking force of Lascarians who had raided the small planet of Aldebron, where he had been working on a short-term, top-secret project. "I'm ready to go. Don't worry about me, Captain. Let's roll."
"Oh, I almost forgot." Ariko added on second thought. "What happened to that 1 survivor, Captain?"
"He's in Istria." Ariko shuddered. Istria was a penal satellite situated on the fringes of the known galaxy, little more than a desert always windy, where the criminally insane were placed.
* * * * *
Ariko entered the chamber, which closed over her. A small haze enveloped the chamber, putting Ariko into a sound sleep as Specialist Mitchell pressed the red button to his left and pulled back on the orange lever to his right.
Slowly, Ariko's body began to take on a greenish-yellow color from her chest to her feet. At the same time, the rest of Ariko's body slowly began to take on a sleek, smooth midnight blue appearance. Both Specialist Mitchell and Captain Mukherjee looked in wonder at the emerging sight that was greeting them. Ariko's hands began to twitch uncontrollably as the small fingers merged into the preceding finger. Her nails turned black and small folds of skin arose between the remaining fingers. Ariko's hands were distinctly reptilian, grasping at empty air --- then falling silent as 2 sets of greenish breasts, slender with spiked nipples, began to form. Then Ariko's hair began to shrink back into her head, which took on a slightly elongated appearance when Rachel viewed her from the side of the chamber. A clear indicator that Ariko's brain mass was expanding rapidly.
Ariko, though asleep, moved spasmodically, her mouth and nose expanding in tandem into a small muzzle, revealing a black, forked tongue which darted back and forth amid 2 rows of small, fanged teeth. Her eyes shot open, black as night, twice their normal size. Ariko hissed and squealed, making a noise that was a mix between static and a language like that of a nattering gibbon from Ancient Earth, the planet of many of the Federation's forebears. A planet long dead from global warming.
The being that had been Dr. Ariko Suzuki bent over on its knees as a tail began forming just above its fleshy backside, expanding til it reached its full length just above a pair of hard, webbed feet. Captain Mukherjee put on a small necklace-like device (the audio/vocal scrambler) which would allow her to enter into direct communication with Ariko once she could be safely let out of the chamber. Specialist Mitchell pumped more gas into the chamber which put Ariko into a settled sleep.
A half hour later, both Captain Mukherjee and Specialist Mitchell were examining Ariko who now lay on a small platform a short distance from the small spherical probe that would take her into Lascaria proper, where she was to fully integrate herself --- as a Lascarian.
"Captain, externally, Dr. Suzuki is 100% Lascarian. And from the brain signals I've been able to track since she was taken out of the chamber, she's 45.5% Lascarian and the rest is still human. However, I don't know if this ratio will remain fixed. Based on what we know of what was Lieutenant Nick Hamilton, that ratio may fluctuate, make her insane, or make her fully Lascarian. In which case, she'll be lost to us.
"OK, Specialist, wake her up," Captain Mukherjee said, staring intently at the Lascarian female asleep on the platform, its hands and feet held down by heavy, steel-blue manacles.
Specialist Mitchell adminstered a small injection into Ariko's neck from a small, cylindral device in his right hand. Ariko's eyes opened. She hissed loudly, uncomprehending until looking sharply at Rachel, swiftly sizing herself up as friend or foe. Satisfied that Rachel was in the former category, she looked at her quietly, hissing softly - an indication that they could now talk. Rachel's audio/vocal scrambler around her neck now made it possible for her to use normal speech with the Lascarian, which it could easily pick up in its own language.
"Ariko, it's time to go." This was the one time Captain Mukherjee addressed Dr. Suzuki informally since the start of the voyage. "The probe is ready. Good luck".
"Thank you, Rachel," Ariko hissed. She was now earless like all Lascarians who had small, triangular, auditory protuberances set on each side of their heads. The manacles were removed. A couple of crew members helped Ariko to her feet and took her to the probe. She was quickly strapped in. Rachel was looking down at the small glass opening through which she could glimpse Ariko with her enlarged black eyes blinking furiously.
The probe shot forward out of the ship, blazing like a light of pure energy, soon entering Lascarian airspace, landing quietly in a small corner of the sleeping planet in the wee hours of the morning.
It was now time for the AFS Lodestar to return home.