"Get ready," said Argus.
"Yes, Argus." The clones said instantly, turning their heads towards him and responding in perfect unison, which made Vila's spine shiver.
Their young faces were attentive and serious, as they waited for orders to exit the room. Very much like Jack, but in their black mutoid uniforms, sleeves and legs rolled up, they were menacing reminders of what they could have been, and could still be. Six stood ready with an improvised stretcher.
Argus went over to the injured wolf, hoping Bright-Eyes had managed to persuade the proud and obstinate Alpha to allow himself to be carried.
"Why don't you ask them some questions, Avon?" asked Sester, leaning back against a wall behind Avon.
"I have no interest in satisfying your curiosity," said Avon flatly, his head angling slightly.
"Don't tell me you're not curious." Since Avon had directed the clones to ignore him, Sester could only rely on observation, but deeper analysis required direct queries. He pushed away from the wall and came to stand beside him. "Of course, if you direct the clones to respond to my questions…"
"You don't mind being carried?" Argus asked Brave-Heart, his brows knitting, and wondering if the Alpha wolf could perhaps be suffering delirium from his injuries. The last time they spoke, the wolf had expressed clearly that he was NOT so severely injured that he had to be carried out like a newborn pup.
* The group will move faster. * The wolf said, as this was the most reasonable attitude for him to take. He turned to Bright-Eyes, affection in his strong eyes, but to Argus's acute ears, just a tad resigned. * And one's mate is unduly worried. *
Bright-Eyes exhaled in a loud puff but didn't say anything; she only rubbed her muzzle against his thick fur.
"It is possible for a male to behave reasonably," said Reya dryly as she come up behind Argus and touched his arm.
"I don't know what you mean."
Brave-Heart stepped onto the improvised stretcher (the top slab of a desk) and positioned himself with great dignity, sitting back on his haunches as if he were a general lifted onto the shoulders of his lieutenants.
"We need six clones to lift," said Argus, looking over the young versions of himself and suddenly realizing he had no idea what to call them.
They stared at him for a second and without further direction, the six closest came forward surrounding the board, and as one smoothly lifted the wolf, balancing the stretcher on their shoulders and steadying it with their hands.
"They are capable of taking independent action," Avon noted clinically as Cally took his arm.
Sester nodded. “That’s not surprising considering they’re not mutoids. For all intents and purposes, they are younger versions of Jack, albeit without his memories."
Argus ordered everyone to follow him with Reya taking the rear.
Avon let Cally guide him as his mind was preoccupied in understanding the possibilities and capabilities of the clones. His voice was low. "They have received mutoid conditioning."
"Yes. Mutoid conditioning imprints their loyalties on the first person to use the imprinting phrase. Within their loyalties, they are capable of interpreting orders given to them. Beyond that, they are free to act, but they must not disobey a direct command from the imprinter."
"Not exactly." The clones proved adept at moving silently and without direction took up optimal guard positions around the stretcher party, Avon and Cally. "I wish you could see this, Avon. They're quite impressive."
"If you ask me, it's not natural," said Vila.
"Of course, it isn't," growled Avon, an irritated look on his face that he couldn't see the objects of their discussions.
Cally, trying to take Avon's mind off his increasing frustrations, asked, "What do you mean by, 'not exactly'?
They made it back to the tunnels without incident and moved quickly in the dimmed lighting. Drips of water echoed along the craggy stone walls.
"The one thing mutoids lack is an inner ‘fire’ that drives a human being to creativity beyond what they've learned and to achieve the impossible.”
Avon’s lip curled in scepticism as they continued to keep their voices low.
"You may scoff, Avon but you are a perfect example of the kind of creativity they are trying to control. Yours has been directed along specific channels, specifically mental achievements. On this base, they were trying to create the ultimate soldier using Argus as their template. Mutoid conditioning gave them control, but they did not remove the capacity to experience emotions."
Looking from a purely objective viewpoint, Avon could easily identify the problems the scientists would have faced with the clones. Argus's stubbornness in this case was not a flaw; it had helped him fight. "But he rebelled."
Sester had watched the interaction between Argus, Reya and the wolves with amused but not surprised interest. "From their records, they were never completely successful with Argus. They had to bring him back regularly for reinforcement conditioning when he began acting beyond his loyalties. In the end, he was able to break free."
The two men fell silent as the group exited the tunnel and huddled together, readjusting to the raging storms outside. Again, without instruction, more clones came forward to hold onto the stretcher as the winds buffeted the sides, threatening to rip it from their hands. The wolf curled flat on the surface, all of his paws and his tail snuggled beneath him. After a few moments, Argus directed them forward again, looking back regularly to make sure everyone was keeping up.
Cally held Avon's arm in both hands, both guiding and helping him keep his footing on the rocky ground strewn with branches ripped loose by the winds. His other hand gripped the dragon-headed cane across his chest. He made no comment when Sester supported his other arm. The group struggled, pushing against the tempest that seemed to impede their every step.
"They've adjusted the degree of conditioning," said Avon, breathless from the effort. His mind was still processing the implication of the clones.
"Yes, but fortunately for us, the clones have not completed their conditioning and adjustments."
Avon pitched forward as his foot caught on a root covered by leaves. His two guides pulled hard on his arms to keep him up as he grunted in surprise and scowled in frustration.
"Sester," Cally said quickly as Avon righted himself and they continued. "What did you mean by adjustments?"
Their eyes met in understanding as Sester responded, "They were trying to create a successful berserker using the wolf for conditioning. That was why they tortured it. They needed the rage and the need to kill."
"That makes them dangerous," said Avon.
The strict toneless quality in his voice made Cally look at him. "Avon, are you thinking they're too dangerous?"
"The issue must be addressed."
Argus thrust his hand up in a signal to the shuttle group as they neared. "Condition report."
Dain struggled to his feet, his face pale and a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his head.
"Stay down, lieutenant."
Dain fell back with an oomph. "All secure, sir. The injured are stable and the shuttle is ready."
"Excellent work." The orders were quick and decisive. "Jenna, ready the shuttle. Cally take care of the wolf. Reya and Vila, get the injured on first. Use the clones to help you."
The wolves all gathered around their leader as Brave-Heart sat up and reassuring them he was fine. The clones didn't look intimidated or concerned as they were surrounded. They calmly set the stretcher down and stepped back as the others helped to move the injured.
Argus came up beside Avon who was talking with Sester. "Avon, you're going on the first trip."
"I'm not injured," his voice was a rough growl.
"I need you on the ship to make sure the base is destroyed when we blow it. If it isn't you can tell Cally. She'll be staying with me. The shuttle will have to be sent back for us."
Avon didn't like that idea of leaving Cally behind but he could see the necessity. "Assuming the storm does not interfere with psi communications."
"It's all we have Avon, so it'll have to do." He addressed Sester. "You help Avon but I want you back here."
"Aren't you forgetting something?" asked Sester.
Argus quickly ran over everything in his mind but there was nothing else he could think of. He suppressed rising irritation as he snapped, "What?"
"I'll talk to them."
Argus scowled. "I don't have time for your cryptic answers."
A thoughtful expression came over Avon's face. "They have the same status as the clones."
"Exactly," said Sester, looking expectantly at Argus.
A headache was starting to develop between his eyes as Argus asked, his voice controlled, "Are you proposing what I think you're proposing?"
"These wolves must be kept out of the hands of the Federation," said Avon.
Sester nodded. "They must not be given the opportunity to recreate this research."
"Or they must be destroyed." The logic was colder than the storm.
"I'm not doing that."
"Bring them on the ship," said Sester.
"That's ridiculous. Assuming we could gather all the wolves on the planet together, the ship isn't big enough."
Sester sighed and shook his head. By now, everyone was loaded on the shuttle and Brave-Heart looked better with Cally's ministrations. "We're ready," said Vila as he came up to them.
Argus held up his hand, "Just a second, Vila, there might be a change."
Avon's head tilted in Sester's direction as he assessed the situation. "There is something you're not telling us."
"Did you think I would propose something if I didn't think it was workable?"
"Spit it out," growled Argus. "We don't have time."
"You don't need to gather all the wolves. Only Brave-Heart's pack. The files from the base indicated their psi abilities were the only ones developed sufficiently enough to be used."
"That's better…how many are we talking about?"
"Wolf packs tend to be small."
Argus thought for a moment, "All right. The plan is still the same but the wolves will come with us after we blow the base."