Recurring dream

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Chapter 1

It all started innocently enough with a dream; I was running flat out across the veldt as my ancestors would have once done, wide paws and strong claws tearing up the parched earth, and leaving a cloud of dust in our wake. Spines and tails arching catlike as we strove for every last centimetre. Ahead the mottled greens and browns of a Durkoen horses, bolting for their lives. Then one of my packmates lept and sunk long teeth into the throat of our prey. At once the rhythm of the chase was broken in a tumble of paws and hooves. Relaxing stride slightly we caught up and began to eat our fill, the feeding rota was strictly first come first served, so each tried to eat as much as possible as fast as possible. Muscle still tangy with alcohol, blood warm, flowing and juicy.

That would all have been tens of thousands of years ago. But despite our language, our technology, our progress, those instincts were still a part of our heritage. Unlike others our society had never drawn a line between our "animal" state and our "intellectual" one.

I'd woken from that dream in considerable pain, my belly swollen and tender. Struggling upright against the twinges I could see just how bloated I was; round and stretched like as though I was several months into a pregnancy. Just moving was agony, so I lay back and invoked the Emergency Medical Hologram; there was no way I'd be putting in my shift in Engineering today. The EMH is a mixed blessing, having little practical experience of my kind, but it unhesitatingly diagnosed colic. A swift hypo-spray of analgesic and antispasmodic (which once he was gone I reinforced with a large, sweetened brandy) and the assurance that I would "pass the built-up wind, one way or another", and he stuttered out of existance. Carefully, gingerly I eased over onto my side, and muttering a traditional chant under my breath, tried to put aside the pain.

When I awoke later, the pain had thankfully subsided to a point where I could move around and be of some use. A small crew like ours cannot afford to have people sick for any length of time. So, I opted to put in a night shift. My dress uniform wasn't going to fit over my subsiding tum, so pulled on overalls and went to work. If you can call it work. Sitting in the womb-like Engineering, warm and with the constant beat of engines themselves, waiting for any sign of trouble, wasn't in itself taxing. But, by the time my shift ended I was fit to drop, and crashed out as soon as I got back to my quarters.

Another adult had been brought down. Instinctively we all knew that this glut of migratory animals would be short lived, and there would be lean days ahead until the first snows once again gave us wide-pawed hunters and advantage over our cloven prey. This understanding lent a serious importance to the hunger. Eating until jaws ached from tearing at muscle, then dozing in the afternoon sun which warmed our meat-drunk forms. Returning to the carcass, in ones and twos, to top up our distended stomachs. By morning, little would remain save the rust-red stain in the soil, and the heavy structure of skull and horns.

The pain that woke me was excruciating. My belly seemed impossibly big, a great furry dome that seemed to be pinning me to the bed. Memories flooded back from childhood of my older sister sitting astride me, goading me to move inspite of her. I didn't know if I dare move. Once more I summoned the EMH who, or rather which, took one scan of my elevated pain and stress levels and promptly sedated me. A quick burst of hypo spray and I was in the dreamless, sleepless unconsciousness of the anasthesia.

Imagine me, lying there, dead to the world in my own bunk. Sheets rumpled and knotted, half dressed from where I'd crashed at the end of my shift. One sock hanging off my foot, the other hanging off the edge of the table. Not for me a bed in sick bay attended by fastidious nurses, the constant monitoring of every breath and every heartbeat. This crate simply didn't have a sick bay. So I lie there, monitionless, as sure as artifical day follows artifical night.

Two full days later I was allowed back across the dark river to rejoin the land of the living. The pain was certainly gone as was the bloated belly. However as our good virtual doctor was so kind to point out, with all the tact you might expect from a piece of software, I was now overweight. I didn't need him to tell me that, as with aching muscles I wriggled plump thighs into my now-tight overalls. Now to return to work and face the inevitable ribbing of my colleagues.

... which wasn't as bad as I expected. After a long day I now stand infront of the mirror, naked to my waist, overalls still hanging off my hips. A few days ago they would have fallen to the floor with nothing to hold them up. I can feel the soft flesh underneath the dense fur all over my torso. There had been comments about my absence, and about my size, but thankfully a issue with the performance of the particle collectors had given them something more important to talk about.

This femur had to be at last as thick as my upper arm. Contented and full I experimented with the thing, moving it around and twisting it until it felt like I had a good grip with my back teeth. While the middle was the narrowest part, the ends near the joints which looked bulky could often be weaker. Probing, I found a place where there was a certain, barely detectible maleability. Closing my eyes I prepared to bring the full strength of powerful jaws to bear on the place I'd found. First the creak, then the explosion of sound in my head, and the rewarding succlence of sweet marrow.

Another day trying to fault find on the particle collectors. With each day our reaction mass reserves are being slightly depleated. The engines require about 10 kilos or so each day, and the collectors are supposed to top up the reserves by trawling particles out of the space we are passing though. Its not in itself a huge problem. Of more concern is that some particle slipping past the fault collectors will strike the hull. At the kinds of speeds involved it could do some serious damage. So far, no fault found. I can't believe how hungry I am, must be all this crawling about in the maintenance ducts.

After the shift is done we all eat dinner in the mess together as usual. Actually, I end up eating alone again. No one is keen to share a table with me, something I've got used to on this trip. The others sit laughing and joking at another table. I order a "rack of ribs", something off their menu that I really do enjoy, simply by stating my preference to thin air. Within seconds the plate of food, cutlery, and a large glass of milk materialise infront of me.

This wonderful piece of technology is the result of simple cost cutting. Providing each crew member with their own replicator is all very nice, but this bucket of bolts isn't exactly built with living it up in mind. Coupling the replicator and transporter systems together allows a single unit to provide all our needs. It also tackles a secondary problem with a bunch of space bums like these: namely collecting and returning the dirty items. After licking my plate clean I simply announce that I am done and it all dematerialises. We'd be knee deep in guys' dirty dishes otherwise.

I'm still hungry, and order some of the chocolate cake. I do so love the taste of chocolate, something that simply did not exist on our world. I know I wasn't supposed to hear the comment "That's where all our bloody reaction mass is going!", but these ears aren't just for show. I ought not to bare my teeth at them, but it shuts them up, and satisfies my anger with them. It is true that out food is converted from the reaction mass, but the ship is a closed system, and all the waste, and the CO2 from the scubbers is returned to the reaction mass. So the odd chocolate indulgence won't account for the mass we are missing. Mind you, they don't account for the growth in my girth either. I'm more suprised, however, when their table splits up, yet one of them, Gerald (what were his parents thinking?) comes over to me. "Don't let them get to you, they always tease the new crew member. Besides, I think you look rather attractive with some curves on you.

I'm alone, worried, wondering how I became lost from the pack. I need to be with them, to hunt with them to survive. The odds on a lone individual survivng are small, and its been days since I last ate. I catch a scent ahead, its a Raehdo, a pig like creature. I hunker down, at least I might not go hungry tonight. Its grubbing about under a bush, obviously found something of interest. I creep closer. Cautious, I've never tried to hunt one before. Its over in an instant, complete surprise! This tastes so good to my starved body. Warm, fatty flesh adding to my own salivations, even the meat is striated with fatty deposits. Blood warm and tangy, organs each with their own textures and tastes. Full, I force myself to eat on, not knowing when or where my next meal will come from.

I awake, swollen again, barely able to breathe, but the pain isn't as bad as it has been before. I get out of bed and for the first time I am aware of just how massive my swollen belly is, throwing me off balance as I try to walk to the mirror. I really do look as though I've eaten a whole Raehdo, as I did in my dream. I stumble back to bed, and once more summon the EMH. This time I demand to know what is in my gut, as it is inconceivable that it is just "wind". The answer, once the staticy analysis is complete is that my balloon of a belly contains an amazing "23kg of partially digested red meat". Is both expected and unexpected. The good doctor's advice that I should therefore "eat significantly less" is perhaps as predictable a response from a low budget AI as it is unhelpful. I ask it to postulate how I could consumed the meal given the predicate that I did not remember eating it. I'm not holding out much hope of a sensible response. The three theories it comes up with are that I was rendered unconcious and then force fed, that I have been hypnotised and given the suggestion to consume the food, or that I have a split personality. Finally, I dismiss it, after verifying that the same condition could explain the symptoms from the other two mornings.

It will be easy enough to check whether anyone else has been in or out of my room; the door control can verify that. And I'm not prepared to entertain the idea that I'm some kind of psychopath just yet. I need to check the replicator logs, and find out whether I did order all that food. Well, I'm not going down there to give those idiots the satisfaction of seeing me like this! Guess I just have to lie here an complete my digestion of 23kg of red meat in private.

Another night shift in the soporific warmth of the engine room. The built in diagnostic on the particle collectors is proving less than informative. The rest of the shift is up in the telepresence bay, struggling to drive the twitchy, laggy, maintenance unit out along the delicate beams that support the collector for a better look. I've got its myopic vision relayed on one of the consoles so I can monitor its awkward progress while I get on with other work. It really needs someone to get out there in person, but that's not possible while we are under way. Of course if the thing loses its footing we'll have to come about and recover it which will take even longer than a stop for a spacewalk. It only takes one person to drive the unit, the other back seat drivers are there to add moral support and to diffuse the blame storm when the inevitable happens and the maintenance unit fumbles its purchase on the grid beam.

My other work is to try and account for the missing reaction mass by analysing the various drains on the system. I've a horrible feeling I already know where most of the missing mass is; my toolbelt lies next to the keyboard, it was too tight even on the final notch for me to be able to wear it while seated. The formless overall is now hugging my thighs, and the material is taut across my back and gapes over my chest. I couldn't fit my analytics pod into my back pocket this morning either. That too lies accusingly next to the toolbelt. I check my own door logs first though, that's easy enough to access. No one has gone in or out except myself.

The transporter logs are more telling, someone need not have come through the door to get into my cabin when they could just have materialised inside. There are several transports while I was asleep, but both the transported volume and mass are too small to be a person. They look more like replicator transfers - and the total mass of around 25kg is a good match for the medical scan. I correlate the transporter logs with the replicator ones, and sure enough each one is for food ordered to my cabin, aparently by myself. Maybe I am losing my mind.

The process of accumulating all the data needed to know if the reaction mass discrepancy can be accounted for by the replication and recycle systems will take some time. Everything, every meal, drink, spare part will need to be tallied up, along with all the oxygen and scent added by the environmental systems. From that needs to be subtracted every scrap of waste and dust, every exhaust gas and disposed liquid. The difference should be minimal, but will need to be accounted for.