Sester felt nothing. He was a mutoid officer, a cold, thinking machine. His steps were tracks that had been set, a pre-programmed course. He suppressed the part of him that automatically found amusement in life and did not take things too seriously. For a mutoid, that would never do.
It was difficult, but not too difficult for a man who had been a chameleon most of his life, becoming anyone he needed to be, reflecting images of people around him.
The clinging, imprisoning hard shell that was the mutoid uniform, reminiscent of old-style leather but considerably tougher, helped to maintain the image in his mind.
His curious mind wondered what it would be like to be a mutoid, not exactly emotionless, but without the drives that made humans act like humans. It was the work of the criminotherapists, overwhelming a person's personality and dominating it with another, more pliable one.
The Guild had similar specialists but they were more subtle, less destructive, using a person's natural personality and 'readjusting' it, making parts dominant and others recessive. The person would remain essentially themselves but their behaviour was modified to fit specific needs.
The fire and passion that was lacking in the mutoids remained intact for someone who had their personalities adjusted. It was a much harder process and required deep understanding of a person's personality, what made them tick. The crude process of wiping a personality and replacing it with something else was much easier and but ran the real risk of mental breakdown.
Sester walked confidently through the Research base. Once he was accepted as a mutoid, it was much easier. The people in the base were concerned about people getting in, not people already there. As long as he stayed away from the mutoids tasked with the security of the base, he was safe. Mutoids did not take initiative action except within the scope of their orders or assigned roles.
"I am here to check the security systems." Sester told the person in the security booth. He kept his voice devoid of inflection. It wasn't the sound of a machine mouthing programmed words; it was the tone of someone performing a task, who had no excitement or feelings about it.
The mutoid, a woman with cone-shaped hair and corporal rank markings, nodded and turned back to what she was doing. Sester wondered if mutoids were ever bored by routine or if it was a human weakness removed by their changed state. Someone whose attention would never flag or waver due to boredom or diversion would be a benefit that came at the cost of their humanity.
He slipped into a chair, careful to cover several screens with his body, just in case. Banks of monitors lined the walls, flickering images that showed every inch of the base. The Guild agent had been very good with what little she'd been able to do. Several of the scanner cameras had been positioned a little off-kilter, not enough to draw suspicion but just enough for a man, with his back flat against the wall, to pass without being seen. It was probably how she managed to penetrate the security in the first place.
Sester entered the appropriate codes supplied by the agent. Careless of them to not to change the access codes. They might not have realized she'd been able to transmit anything out of the base.
A menu opened up. Innocuous items. Regular information about the base.
Maintenance, work schedules, archives, various logs, accounting, Federation network, security division, research…
Research. Probably not what he wanted, but it was worth a try. His finger touched the screen. The menu shifted as Research became dominant and more items fanned for his perusal. A detailed list.
That looked interesting. He touched the flat surface. Several of the screens in front changed images. Rows and rows, neatly lined, stretched as far as the eye could see. Long cylindrical metallic pipes with smaller tubes feeding into them. Lights blinked regularly on one side, like the beating of a heart. There were informational panels but he could only see the edges.
Sester looked down at the information screen and read quickly, scrolling through, barely giving the words time to get comfortable before moving onto the next.
Ten thousand pods. His heart beat faster. They were building an army.
There has to be more to it. Just building an army was too pedestrian for the Guild's enemies. Too simple. He accessed more information, reading research reports. Aggression Factor.
One of the greatest drawbacks of the mutoids was the lack of drive. They would function against all odds if ordered to, but they could not rise above the odds. They weren't able to create their own fates, as someone like Argus would be able to, they were victims to it.
The research scientists were trying to insert an aggression factor into the mutoid profile. Creating berserkers. Limited success. Unable to control subjects. Minds became unusable. Require stronger minds. Alphas?
Sester sat up, his fingers running along the edge of the smooth screen. Alphas were not subject to mutoid processing, their minds were considered too valuable. Unless…they ran afoul of someone with the authority to order it. The ultimate revenge. Or if it was done illegally.
His Master was right; this had to be stopped.
An embossed wolf's head, silvery and barely visible at the bottom right edge of the screen, caught his eye. He touched the muzzle, almost caressing it and smiled briefly at the reminder of Argus and the Wolf in his head.
A new screen popped up. Blazoned across a black background were words in red, Base Commander's Eyes Only. A wolf's head, proud and eyes fierce, stared out at him. Fingers of apprehension ran up and down up his spine.
The wolves kept shaking their heads, unhappy they could no longer talk to each with their minds. Being able to communicate using body language was scant comfort. The oldest, most experienced Beta, Good-Nose, directed the others.
Black-Tail approached Avon, nudging him with his wet nose and butting his head against Avon's hand.
"I think he wants you to follow him, Avon," said Jenna. "I think they want to move." She was already on her feet, weapon ready in her hand and eyes sharp.
"I gathered that." He placed his hand on the shaggy fur, feeling the bunched muscles at the shoulder, braced himself with his cane and stood up. "Any indication where they're going?"
"Would it make a difference? You can't see."
"What an acute observation," said Avon in a flat voice. "Someone is jamming psi communications. It is unlikely they know the Justice is here."
"You mean…" Jenna looked around in alarm. "Someone is after the wolves?"
"It's a distinct possibility."
"We have to warn them." She looked at Black-Tail as his dark eyes regarded her curiously.
Avon lay low behind the gnarled trunk of a fallen tree. He could hear faint boot steps scratching the rock. Close.
"Throw down your weapons and surrender." Jenna stepped into the open, her weapon pointed at the mutoid troop.
Blank faces looked at each other; even mutoids could be surprised. Their weapons trained on Jenna.
The mutoid sergeant stepped forward. She said in a flat voice, "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
The she-wolf streaked ahead, her silvery coat glistening in the flashes of the storm. Argus/Wolf paced her, but not because he couldn't keep up. He loved her form, the smooth rippling of her muscles beneath the bushy coat and the way her paws barely brushed the ground when she ran.
Wolf, keep your mind on the mission.
The creature grumbled but didn't say anything.
Argus looked back. Dain and the other three were pumping hard, trying to keep up. Not bad for humans.
What was he saying? He was human. Argus shook his head and focused on the task. Someone had blocked the wolves' ability to use their telepathic communications. It had to be a jamming device of some sort.
Just up ahead. They were close.
There was a whining-whiz sound and a glare. Jenna's weapon!
There were more sounds and flashes of light that lit the forest up ahead. Federation! It must be the mutoids.
Argus knifed his hand through the air, signalling the danger they all heard. They ran faster, danger urging them forward.
He gestured as they neared. There was no time for subtleties. They burst into the battle, blasting away at anything that didn't look like Avon, Jenna or the wolves. A battle was already raging. The startled mutoids turned to face the new threat.
In a split second, Argus assessed the situation, taking in all the details even as he brought down two mutoids with a quick double burst.
Avon lay flat behind a fallen tree. Jenna was beside him, the tip of her weapon spitting energy towards the mutoids. The mutoids were grappling with the snarling, biting wolves, finding it difficult to get good shots off with their rifles as the creatures weaved in and out like blurs of motion. Blood splattered on the ground from wolf, mutoid and human alike. Several wolves lay on the ground, trapped in weighted nets the mutoids had intended to use on them all.
It was a fierce ground battle. The mutoids were fast, strong and knew no fear. Two held a struggling Dain, who was bleeding from a gash on his forehead. Baxter aimed and shot one. Dain pulled his arm free and decked the other mutoid, snapping his head back and kicked him in the kneecap. The mutoid dropped like a dead weight as Dain rapped him on the back of the head. The mutoid’s eyes glazed over and he fell forward unconscious.
Argus brought down two more before being tackled from behind. He went down in a tangle of arms and legs. The mutoid was good, strong and experienced, but she was no match for Argus. He locked her arm up in a painful position and raised his fist. She stared at him suddenly, looking hard at his face. There was a flicker of something in her eyes that caused her to stop struggling just for a second in surprise, even as Argus punched her and she went down.
"Avon, behind you!" Jenna screamed as a mutoid, who had snuck up behind them, opened fire. Avon quickly rolled, the shot hitting the ground behind him, throwing up dirt and leaves. The mutoid aimed his gun at Jenna.