Baxter approached the circle of wolves holding vigil over Good-Nose’s body just outside the shuttle. His young face was troubled and he walked slowly. Black-Tail stood up and moved to block his way.
“I mean no offense.” Baxter held his empty hands high to show he was no threat. “I just...I wanted to show my respect. The wolf...” His throat choked. “The one who died, he saved my life. My gun malfunctioned and...”
His eyes were moist as he remembered the brave wolf leaping at the two mutoids about to shoot him. Instead, they turned and shot him at point blank range. The wolf had jerked in mid-air, like a puppet whose strings had been yanked, and he fell heavily to the ground and moved no more.
Baxter fought back tears as he remembered how still the wolf had been as it lay on the ground, its body covered in blood. He had screamed then, and his vision was red as he grabbed a rifle from a dead mutoid and shot the two who had killed the wolf. All he wanted to do was kill all the mutoids.
“I don’t even know his name,” he said, his heart full of misery, grief and guilt.
Black-Tail regarded him with grave eyes. * You wish to know his name? *
“I need to know it.”
The wolf dipped his head as if he understood. * His name was Good-Nose. He was one of the best of us. A brave wolf who gave honour to his pack. He could track the wind with his nose. *
“Would you mind...if I joined you for awhile?” His eyes rested on the blood-matted fur of Good-Nose.
* We would be honoured. I am Black-Tail. * He nodded formally.
The young soldier returned the nod solemnly. “My name is Baxter.”
The wolf stepped to the side to let him pass.
As the memory of the boy in his mind screamed, Argus started and shuddered. He shook his head to clear the vision even as it began to fade, leaving only a few fragmented images.
I have to focus. He put his ear to the door and listened. No sounds outside, only the voices of his technical team on the inside.
“Are you alright?” Reya’s concerned voice nearly made him jump as she came up behind him.
How did she always do that?
“I’m fine. Some bad memories.”
She nodded and listened at the door too. “You were captured here.”
“It’s not that. I was here a long time ago.” The memories were too fresh, too painful. “I...can’t talk about it now. After the mission.”
The soldier in Reya understood about priorities. Sometimes she wished she didn’t. "Alright. “ There was something she wanted to bring up but she knew it would not make him happy. "Someone’s missing.”
Argus looked back at Avon, Vila and Jenna who were still working on the computer and Bright-Eyes, who was stretched out by Avon’s feet, her ears twitching as she listened for danger. “Who?”
Argus’s eyes widened and then narrowed. “That’s true...where is he?”
“We might have to look for him after we’re done here.”
He grumbled under his breath, “Do we have to?”
“Argus, that’s not very nice.”
“Neither is he.” At the pointed look in her eyes, he said quickly, “You’re right, we should look for him.”
Argus asked, “Avon, do we have the information? We should get the serum and go. It’s not safe staying here.”
“We have the information.” Avon turned his head towards him. “But there is something else.”
“Oh?” he came over behind the desk and looked at the monitor. It showed the footage from a security scanner, rows and rows of long cylindrical tubes. “What are we looking at?”
“You’re going to like this,” said Vila, an excited smile on his face.
Jenna nodded. “It’s going to solve all our problems.”
“Send the others to obtain the serum," said Avon.
“It’s that important?” He peered hard at the cylindrical tubes, trying to pierce their mysteries.
“Alright. The two of you go with Reya to get the blood serum.”
After sending Reya off with Vila and Jenna and directing Bright-Eyes to keep her ears at the door, Argus asked, “What’s going on, Avon?”
Avon tapped on the monitor he couldn’t see. “Do you know what these are?”
“I don’t have time for 20 questions. Why don’t you tell me?”
The shadow of a smile appeared on Avon’s lips. “Alright.” He gestured to the screen. “These are Transforming Pods.”
Argus stared at the cylinders in alarm. “You mean they turn people into mutoids?”
“No. Mutoid modification is a surgical procedure. The physical modifications and the adjustments to the brain are done by surgeons.”
The lights of the cylinders blinked steady rhythms in green and red. Wires snaked from the ends to banks of control panels.
“Then what are these?”
“They are programming chambers.”
At those words, shadows clouded Argus’s vision. A blast of cold air chilled his body as he clung to the last morsels of light before he was plunged into darkness. Voices whispered to him. Louder and louder until he could not ignore them, until they were the only sounds he heard.
The ground seemed to lurch beneath his feet as Argus staggered and he stared in shock at the cylinders; the sensation of being trapped still fresh in his mind. “Oh my god, Avon...” He fell back into a chair. It was hard to breathe.
"What's wrong?" Avon's voice did not change tone but his words chased each other in urgent expression.
“I've been having memories about this place. I…was in one of these machines.” He felt broken, splintered. The man, the Wolf and the child who had died in these pods.
“After they took you at the Academy?”
Argus put his hand to his head, pressing inward, wishing he could drive away the memories. “Yes.”
“It makes sense they would use these. The technology at work is not exclusive to mutoid programming.”
Clenching his fists in anguish, Argus said, “We have to destroy them.”
Avon’s hand came up. “Not yet. We can use them.”
“No one should use these," Argus said angrily.
"Use your military logic. Do not let sentiment cloud your objectivity. We have a unique opportunity here. There are ten thousand pods.”
“That many?” Argus leaned forward. The thought of tens of thousands of mutoids, spreading throughout the galaxy at the orders of the Federation, was a disturbing thought. “They must be building an army.”
“That would be my guess.”
“We can’t let them do that.”
Avon’s lips curled into a wolfish smile. “Not them. Us."
"What do you mean 'us'?"
"We can program a trigger word into their subconscious, wake them up and imprint them onto whomever we want. We would have an instant army for the rebellion.”
The thought of it was tempting. An instant army of mutoids, faster, stronger and programmed to serve the rebellion. No more friends would have to die. No sacrifices of brave souls like Good-Nose. It made sense, but all he could hear was the death-clang of the cylinder lid as it closed over the life of the child he had been. “No, Avon. We can’t do it. We can’t use them like that.”
Avon's lips thinned and he shook his head. “These are mutoids. They're little more than biological machines. Everything that was human about them was removed.”
“They were human.”
“Were. But not anymore.”
“I can’t do it, Avon.”
Avon felt the warm body leaning closer. “Avon, is there a way to reverse the process? Are we sure there is nothing left of the original personality?”
“Not without extensive analysis and experimentation. And access to their database.”
“So you don’t know for certain?”
“The chance is very slim.”
“Avon, they put me in one of those things. They programmed me like a machine.” Anguish thickened his voice. “They took away my choice, my freedom, who I was. I never wanted to kill anyone, Avon. Do you remember? That was why you tried to help me escape.” His head bowed and his eyes closed tightly at the pain of the boy he had been. “Kerr…” The boy had never truly died and now he was being given a chance again.
The voice, so much like Jack but deeper, reawakened memories and feelings that had been taken away from the young Avon; the face of the anguished boy, his knuckles raw and bleeding, punching a training dummy into helpless submission because that was how he felt. Avon remembered being angry for his friend and the depth of his own feelings.
In his memories, Kerr took one of the bruised hands in his and Avon in the present unconsciously reached out towards the anguished voice.
Why aren’t you wearing gloves?
Avon's voice was determined. "We will use the mutoids to destroy those who did this to you."
Argus lifted pained and anguished eyes. "Avon, I can't do this. We can't."
"I can," he said ruthlessly. To him the mutoids were not human. Just as for Vila, they were inhuman monsters that drank blood.
"Avon, if it was me in one of those pods, could you do it?"
The rationality was simple. "You would want to fight against those who imprisoned you."
"Yes…" Argus sighed, realizing it was a bad example. "But that's not the point. It's about…freedom of choice. It's about becoming a slave to someone else. It's about someone deciding they have the right to control your life like a puppet. It doesn't matter who it is or what their reasons are. It's wrong." He shuddered as the memories of the past came back and stayed. "I don't want to do that to anyone else. I couldn't live with myself."
Silence separated them as Argus looked into Avon's dimmed eyes, wishing he could see into his soul. "Avon?"
"You insist on viewing these mutoids as surrogates of your own experience." His cold, rational voice spoke volumes even without the words.
"I know you think it's irrational. You don't see them as people, only instruments to be used."
An instrument to be used. The phrase echoed in Avon's mind. It was what he had been most of his life. In his mind's eye, he saw the face of Jack, imagined him screaming in one of the cylinders as they took his will away. A knot of pain clenched inside him and his breathing quickened. He knew how it felt.
By extension, it meant he knew - even if he didn't want to - how these mutoids would feel if the Federation had not taken away their capacity to be human. "What do you want to do?"
"I want to know if the process can be reversed."
"And if it can't?"
"Let's find out first." His eyes narrowed as he saw a figure in a white Federation lab coat entering the room with the Transforming Pods. Even though the man kept his face angled away from any security cameras, Argus recognized the walk and the easy way the way man carried himself.
"Sester. What's he doing in there?"
Sester walked slowly into the room where an army of cylinders lay neatly lined in rows and sections awaiting his inspection. The crisp white uniform of a Federation sci tech made him virtually invisible in a Research facility.
He stopped at the panels, his hands busy at the controls as if he had a purpose to be there. Information spilled across the screens in quick succession, as he read quickly, not wanting to be here any longer than he had to be.
Thin explosive strips lined his belt. They would destroy a sizeable portion of this base and wipe out the enemies' work in a matter of seconds.
The enemy was building an army of berserkers who were as blindly obedient as mutoids and with the beginnings of telepathic ability that could be used on humans. It was a frightening thought, tens of thousands of these soldiers tearing across the galaxy, destroying all who stood in their way.
If his reading of the files were correct, they were only partially successful. That was why the Transforming Pods were mostly empty. Most had not survived the process and the rest had descended into madness. Only two dozen of the pods were occupied.
Over a year ago, the enemy had found a genetic profile strong enough to accept the modifications. Someone who had come into their hands that they had almost forgotten about.
There was still one flaw. That was the reason for the wolves. Sester had seen the cages and the bodies of numerous wolves sacrificed to scientific research. The enemy believed it was only a matter of time before they solved this last problem and once they did, ten thousand transforming pods were ready to create the ultimate army to do their bidding.
Sester touched one of the active pods. It vibrated beneath his fingers and the hiss of air told him there was life inside. He had a sneaking and uncomfortable feeling about what lay within. Sester knew he should not be here. He was only supposed to place the charges and get out. Every moment he exposed himself, he risked discovery, but he had to find out something.
He steeled himself and depressed the catches. He stepped back as it slowly lifted upwards and rotated, revealing the ultimate soldier inside. His breath caught and his heart sank as he recognized the face. It was a boy, around twelve, his body a work of art in sculpted muscular form. It was Jack.