As Avon rolled to the sound of Jenna's warning, he threw his cane at the sound of the gun that fired at him. A shot rang out and there was a thud as a body hit the ground. "Jenna?"
"I'm still alive." She had been able to bring her gun around when Avon's cane distracted the mutoid. "Here." Jenna handed the cane back to him as she saw the last of the mutoids falling.
Avon wrapped his fingers around the dragon-handle. "It flew out of my hand as I was rolling."
"I'm sure it did," said Jenna as she helped him up. "Lucky for me."
"Wasn't it?" There was the barest of smiles on both their faces.
Avon tilted his head to listen but the sounds of scuffling and weapons fire had ended. "The battle is over."
"Seems like it."
Argus prodded a mutoid with his foot as he assessed the injuries of both sides. Most of the mutoids were dead, the rest were injured. One of the wolves had died, several were injured, Sgt. Dyre was in bad shape with an abdominal injury and Lt. Dain had a dressing over a head wound that was still bleeding. "Avon, Jenna, you alright?"
"Relatively." Avon touched the large bruise swelling on his right arm and grimaced.
"I'm alright." Jenna bent down and helped Sgt. Harley untangled a whining wolf - it looked like Black-Tail - from a wiry net that had heavy stone-like weights on the edges. "Argus, they were trying to capture the wolves," she told him.
Argus pressed his knee gently into the back of one mutoid, as he slipped her belt off and looped it around her wrists. Even injured beyond the ability to get up, she still struggled and tried to fight, further hurting herself. A function of her programming he guessed. "I realized that when Bright-Eyes couldn't hear the pack."
The she-wolf was pacing the battlefield, her nose touching those who were injured, human and wolf alike. She was like a mother, frantic that her children had been hurt and trying to help all of them.
* She is a good mate, * sighed Wolf. His affection for Bright-Eyes filled Argus and he loved her too.
* Yes, she is. *
Bright-Eyes whimpered when she reached Good-Nose and nudged his still body.
The glare of a descending ship lit up the forest. They all looked up in alarm and those with weapons aimed them towards the new threat.
"There's weapons fire up ahead." Cally's hands were steady on the navigation controls. Next to her, Reya leaned forward towards the screen. "I see it. Can you land us near it?"
Cally touched the nav screen. "You think it's them?"
Reya had slipped her weapon free of her holster. "If it’s the Federation, they might be in trouble."
Vila stuck his head between the two of them. "What's going on?"
"Get ready by the hatch, Vila. We might need to exit quickly." Reya unstrapped herself from the seat with a click. "There's a battle up ahead. Tell the others."
Vila rushed off muttering, "From the frying pan, into the fire."
"That," Reya stood up, her eyes amused, "actually makes sense."
"He does have a way with words at times," said Cally distractedly as she entered the landing sequence.
Argus was the first to greet them. "It's good to see you."
"I thought you might need some help," said Reya, surveying the damage.
Cally, Corinne, Kirsten, Vila and the team of soldiers rushed to help the injured.
"You're hurt again." She touched the sticky red area around his shoulder and sighed.
He gave her a wry smile. "Sorry, I can't seem to follow orders."
"You do have a problem with that."
"It's stopped bleeding," he said hopefully.
"Well, that's something. It looks like a clean wound. A tissue regenerator should fix it." Reya went off to find one.
"We can leave the wounded here." Avon's cane tapped on the rock surface as he came up behind him.
"I was thinking that," said Argus. "And a team to secure the shuttle."
The battle had been fierce. Most of the mutoids were dead and the remainder critically wounded. Sgt. Dyre received a leg injury that needed to be immobilized. Lt. Dain had a concussion on top of the gash on his head and was currently under Cally's orders to rest and not do anything. Baxter was disgustingly healthy, young and energetic as he helped with the injured. At least that was Sgt. Harley's grumbling comment as he slapped a healing pad to a phaser burn on his upper arm.
The worst news was that Good-Nose died when he charged two mutoids after Baxter's gun misfired.
The other wolves whined and some whimpered as they touched their noses to his still body. Several of them were limping and moving slowly due to injuries but they refused to leave his body. Bright-Eyes licked his muzzle and nudged his neck.
"They want the wolves," said Avon as he watched this display.
"I know. We have to stop them." Argus took a deep shuddering breath and let it out slowly. "It doesn't feel any better when its wolves."
Avon turned his head towards Argus, his mind's eye giving him an image of the tortured man beside him. He nodded imperceptibly though his voice had no expression. "Sentiment."
"I know you think it’s a weakness."
"Not for them." Avon faced away, his ears sharp for any unusual sounds. The mourning of the wolves was a requiem that touched deeply to places that had never healed. Rains began to fall, becoming tears that dripped down their faces and washed away the signs of violence.
Avon's next words were quiet, almost as if he didn't want anyone to hear them. "Not for us." He didn't understand why but in the grief of those he barely knew, he saw it clearly, this man's weakness was their strength.
"Let's get everyone into the shuttle," said Argus as he went to help lift the dead wolf.
After determining the people who would stay to tend to the wounded and guard the shuttle, a small group infiltrated the base. Bright-Eyes joined them, guiding Avon's steps. She refused to be left behind in the search for her mate and for answers.
Vila unlocked a small office along a corridor of similar offices and they rushed inside before anyone saw them.
"We need access to their computer network," said Avon. Bright-Eyes led him to a cluttered desk as Jenna sat down behind the computer. She was tempted to clear some of the mess away, the multi-coloured data crystals and stacks of plasti-sheets, but remembered they didn't want anyone to know they'd been there.
"Try to access their daily nutrients log," said Avon as he felt along the side of the computer and popped out a panel. He opened the loose flap of the equipment bag slung over his shoulder and pulled out a mini-computer and a clear lead. Jenna tapped on the keys and a main menu appeared on the screen.
"Avon," Argus was by the door with Reya, keeping watch. "The last time we were here, the information we needed was in a secured lab. It wasn't attached to the network."
"That would be logical, if we were attempting to access classified information. Daily mutoid maintenance would not be in that category."
"That's true." Argus concentrated on his own task of keeping them safe.
"Vila, do you see three wires, red, blue and orange connected to a triangular wafer?"
Vila squinted, peering inside the computer and touching them with sensitive fingers. "I see them."
"Strip the blue one and connect this wire." He handed Vila the clear lead from his bag.
As Vila did this, he glanced over at Avon's intense face. "You know what we used to call mutoids in the Delta grids?"
"You will no doubt enlighten us." He was about to add 'whether we want to know or not' - which he didn't - but he remembered his promise to work on their relationship.
Cally had been trying to show him that being completely honest was not necessarily a relationship-enhancing quality. Of course, Avon had objected. Relationships should not be above the truth but she asked him to consider it. He would never understand human irrationality but he could occasionally keep the truth to himself.
"Done." Vila said with a flourish. "We call them vampires because they drink blood."
Avon touched the keypad on the mini-computer and pressed a few buttons. "You're repeating yourself. You've said that before."
"It still applies."
An irritated edge crept into Avon's voice. "Mutoids obtain nutrients from a blood serum using an efficient delivery device grafted directly to their circulatory system. That does not make them vampires."
"Well, you can call them serum-sucking delivery systems if you want; they're still vampires to me."
The computer beeped. Avon said dryly, "Then you would call me a vampire if I need to use the blood serum?"
"Oh. Well…" Vila looked embarrassed. "I didn't mean it that way. I would never call you a vampire, Avon." He smirked. "Not anymore."
Avon 'glared' at him and wondered how committed he was to being sparing with the truth. He turned to Jenna. "Do you have the information?"
"I have the location of the blood serum stores."
"Good. Now access their security system. I will provide the by-pass using this."
As the others were accessing the computer network, Argus felt strange and melancholic. The last time he came to Tingash he had been captured and one of his rebels had died.
But there was something else now. This was where he received the wolf in his head. The one that enabled him to kill.
His vision dimmed and he shivered.
It was cold and his head hurt. "No!" Jack shouted as he remembered struggling with the people in black, trying to give Vila the chance to escape.
I can't move! He opened his eyes and squinted when the glare of the overhead lights blinded him. He tried to move but metal bands held him down, wide ones across his chest and hip, and narrower ones biting into his wrists and ankles. He didn't have any clothes on.
The people in black must have hit him over the head and brought him here. The walls were white and there were grey drawer units lining one wall. Instrument trays sat on carts beside his bed. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what they were all for but he had the sinking feeling he was going to find out.
Fear touched him like tendrils wrapped around his insides and clenching slowly. The boy pulled as hard as he could against the restraints, straining until every muscle was clearly defined beneath the skin, but it was no good.
"An excellent specimen." It was a female voice. Sharp. She could have been talking about a good lab animal.
"Yes…if he weren't, he wouldn't be here," a deep male voice replied.
The authority in the tone made Jack ask, "Who are you? What are you going to do with me?"
There was no reply. Jack twisted his head, trying to catch a glimpse of the people behind the voices.
"Unusually strong in body and mind. The readings are off the charts," said the woman as she made comments on the test results. "Genetically exceptional."
"He would be. Prepare the conditioning unit," said the bass voice.
Jack saw snatches of white coats as lab techs followed the orders. A familiar device moved towards him on silent rollers.
"No!" He struggled again. It was the domed learning unit from the Academy, but he doubted if it would help him learn anything, if it ever did. There was nothing he could do, there was no escape, but he continued straining against the hard, unyielding bonds.
Before they took his mind, he needed to find out what happened to the others. Make sure they were safe.
"Please, what happened to my friends? Are they alright?" There was no answer other than the conditioning unit wheeling into place by his head. He moved as far away from it as the restraints allowed. "It wasn't their fault. It was me. I put them up to it. Don't blame them."
The unit snapped into place and the dome rotated on its hinges, coming up over his head. Jack saw the light green eyes of a woman looking at him from the edge of the unit. His eyes pleaded with her. "Please, don't hurt my friends."
"You have no friends." Her cold voice chilled him even as the dome encased his head and he was plunged into darkness. Jack screamed.
The wolf shook his head as strange thoughts filled his mind. His lithe young body leapt into the air, crashing into the metal bars that held him prisoner. With powerful jaws and tearing fangs, he bit on the enclosure and pulled, but the bars would not be defeated. Anger formed deep in his throat and erupted in a low menacing growl.
The young wolf limped, dragging himself around the enclosure as he circled his tormentor, a two-legs wearing a dark skin suit and holding a metal club that spit energy, which burned. The wolf was brave. He would not whimper at the pain that wracked its body. Trails of blood marked his path.
He did not know why he hesitated earlier when he could have killed his enemy, could have torn out the throat of his cruel tormentor. The wolf didn't understand the strange impulses that were not his own, not wolf. Now he was fighting a desperate battle. His ears drooped with exhaustion and his flanks heaved, taking in air that was cold and froze him inside.
If he didn't kill his enemy soon he knew he was going to die.
The wolf thought of speaking to the two-legs with his mind but the pack leader had said that under no circumstances were they to use mind-communication with the humans. He didn't understand why but the pack leader was to be obeyed.
But he had to do something. He could feel his life bleeding away as his paws fought for purchase on the floor slick with his blood. The two legs slipped and fell back, the club flying from his hand and hitting the bars with a crack.
It was a chance! One chance. Maybe his last one.
Let me do this! He told himself, not knowing why he would need to do this. The wolf bunched his hind legs. Sore, complaining muscles gathered for one last effort and he jumped. Front paws landed on the human's chest, pinning him down. The wolf bared its teeth and reached for the tender flesh at the throat, his fangs sinking in, tasting the warm gush of blood and bearing down with his jaws in a terrible bite. Then pulling, ripping, until a fountain of red hit his face and the human gurgled and stopped moving.
The wolf lifted its head up in a howl of triumph.
Inside a laboratory room, a boy strapped to a table by metal bands, his tortured mind exhausted, opened his mouth in an inhuman howl.