"Don't manipulate the wolves," warned Argus after sending the shuttle off.
Sester said under his breath, "Then how do you expect to persuade them?"
"With the truth."
That provoked raised eyebrows and an amused shake of his head. "Why risk wasting our time when the result can be guaranteed?" He slipped on the slick, uneven surface and grabbed the solidly muscular Argus for support.
"People can be persuaded without being manipulated," growled Argus, shrugging him off once Sester regained his footing. "Watch where you're going."
"They can but not when we can't afford the time."
"We are not manipulating them." His jaw was set, his tone inflexible. "They deserve more than that."
The winds howled and pushed at his back, threatening to lift him off his feet. Even Argus found it hard going.
Civilians, thought Sester. Not that he expected anything else from Argus. The man was incredibly dense. "You'd rather waste time explaining abstract concepts to creatures who may not understand, just because you want to have a clear conscience? Isn't that selfish?" He kept his eyes on the ground, picking his way carefully.
"You're twisting my words."
They arrived at the clearing. The wolves stood up and regarded them with curious eyes, their ears pricked up at the tense words between the two men.
* What is the matter? * the softer mental voice of Bright-Eyes asked them with concern.
"I have something to discuss with you. It has to do with the safety of your pack."
* There is danger? * Brave-Heart tensed and his head lifted.
"Yes. The men who captured you were using you to hurt the clones."
* What are clones? * asked Bright-Eyes.
Sester gave a loud sigh and Argus flashed him an irritated glare. "They are the younger ones who look like me."
* Clones. * The she-wolf nodded.
* I did not hurt the clones, * said Brave-Heart.
"I know you didn't. The people on the base used you to hurt them."
The wolf gave a whining-bark. * I do not understand. *
"Yes, please explain it to us." Sester crossed his arms pointedly over his chest and waited. Argus ignored him.
"I need you to trust me, we don't have time to explain but your pack is in danger."
There was a quiet, cynical snort from Sester's direction.
* Then we will destroy the enemy before they can hurt the pack, * the wolf nodded, a fierce fire in his eyes. Bright-Eyes stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her mate. They looked ready to face any danger.
"We will destroy the base before we leave, but many more bad people will come. You will never be able to fight them all."
* We will try. *
"I have another solution."
The wolf dipped his head. * We would be honoured to have you fight with us. *
"I would be honoured," Argus bowed. "But I don't think it's necessary."
* What is your solution? * the soft-spoken she-wolf asked.
"We can take your pack away from this place. Then the Federation, the bad people will never be able to find you."
* You wish us to go with you? *
"Yes. We have space on our ship."
Bright-Eyes nudged her mate, a soft rumble in her chest. * But this is our home. *
* Yes, dearest. But if the bad humans come, the pack will not be safe. I saw what they can do. They are very powerful. If there are more of them, we cannot fight them all. *
She exhaled, her eyes dull with sadness. * You are right, we must protect the pack. *
Brave-Heart rubbed her muzzle with his in appreciation. * It will be all right. * He turned his head to Argus. * We will go with you. I will tell the pack to join us. *
"I can hear you thinking it," Argus's voice rumbled with irritation. Keeping low, he poked his head over the fallen log and ducked quickly as a security scanner rotated in his direction. They were at the edges of the mutoid research compound.
Sester chuckled quietly. "Truth can stumble to the same result but my methods involve less melodrama and far fewer confusing words."
"Any time." Sester drew an anti-clockwise circle along the outer edge of the wrist unit. A small recessed button popped out from the side.
The button was pressed. "One, two,” he smiled, “three." A sharp crack split the night air before the word ended. A flash of light, then a loud explosion rocked the ground as the base disintegrated and pieces were flung out in all directions. They hugged the ground and shielded their heads.
A wide grin split Sester’s face and he was flushed with the thrill of what he had just done. “That was good.” There was an intoxicating, drunken feeling. “I never realized how good it could be. Destroying the enemy, seeing them blow up. The violence. The energy ringing in your ears. You feel...invincible.”
Plumes rose and expanded in dark columns of choking smoke. The frame of the building crumbled.
Argus scowled, “Don’t get used to it. It had to be done, nothing more.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t feel it. I’ve seen you. The look on your face. The euphoria. You wanted to destroy these people as much as I did.”
“You’re not supposed to enjoy it,” he growled, guilt nibbling at him because he knew exactly how Sester was feeling right now. The thrill. That split second when your gun spits out death and pierces the body of your enemy. The feel of your knife plunging in... “You’re not supposed to enjoy it.”
“But you do.” Sester was relentless because he heard the words and knew what they meant.
“We’re talking about you. You will not turn into a homicidal bomber just because it feels good.”
Sester’s lips thinned and the corners turned up in a teasing grin. “But I wouldn’t be if I did it for a good reason.”
“Well, games at any rate. Why do you care? You already think the worst of me.”
“I...” An automatic denial was on his lips. He wanted to say he didn’t care, that Sester could rot. “Shut up. We have to get back to the others.” He went off without seeing if Sester was following.
The landing location was full of wolves. Little ones, excited and their eager noses twitching, were surrounded by the larger wolves. Some flattened their ears displayed their fangs as Argus and Sester returned.
The two men approached with arms spread and hands open.
Brave-Heart stood strong, his head held high like the Alpha he was. * These are our new pack mates. *
One of the new arrivals sniffed, * Two-legs cannot be trusted. *
* Not all two-legs are the same. These ones have the honour of wolves. *
Sester smirked because Argus glanced at him.
Brave-Heart said firmly, * I trust them. *
The wolf bowed. * Then I will accept them. Why have you called us here? *
The Alpha wolf took a deep breath, his flanks expanding. * This will be difficult to understand but we must leave our home. *
The wolves all stirred, some sneezing in stress as others paced and some whined at this unwelcome idea. * Why, leader? *
* Our pack is in danger. Many two-legs who are not honourable want to do us harm. They will kill our young. *
Growls and barks greeted that announcement. * We will fight them. *
* You are all brave but there are too many of them to fight. We must protect the young ones. *
* Where will we go? *
Brave-Heart pointed his nose in Argus’s direction. * This is the Alpha of the two-legs who are honourable. He will take us to his home. We will live with his pack. *
“Don’t say anything,” Sester said quickly as Argus opened his mouth. “You have a bit of a problem but that’s for later.”
Argus whispered. “This isn’t just a bit of a problem. They think they’re going to live on the ship with us.”
“Yes, where will we put them all...”
“That’s not funny.”
Sester had a smirk that could burrow in like a splinter.
Twenty-one wolves on the transport shuttle was a squeeze but manageable. The trip back to the ship was thankfully anti-climatic.
The shuttle hatch unlatched with a clang and slid to the side with a metallic groan. Argus came down the exit platform before it fully extended. “Sergeant Lo, prepare cargo bay three for the wolves.”
“Wolves, sir?” the sergeant’s eyes opened wide as grey-coated creatures poked curious heads out of the hatch and looked around. He rubbed the faint stubble on his chin, most likely adding to the list of strange things to be seen on this ship, and like all practical and dependable sergeants everywhere, composed himself quickly and said, “Of course, sir. I will see to it right away.”
“Where are the clones?”
“I believe they’re being checked out in the medical unit.”
“Good. I’ll be in the medical unit.”
Brave-Heart and Bright-Eyes led the way down the ramp, encouraging and herding the excited little ones and the more nervous members of the pack.
Before leaving, Argus said, * Follow Sergeant Lo. He will take you to a place where your pack can rest. Tell him what you need and he will provide it. *
Brave-Heart dipped his muzzle. * The pack appreciates your kindness. *
Argus nodded formally and went over to the comm panel on the wall. "Reya, everyone's back. Any activity on the planet?"
After a slight pause, Reya's voice reported, "Not that we can see from here. The explosion appears to have destroyed their communications ability."
There was a slight crackle of static before she replied, "None on short or long-range scanners."
"Is Avon there?"
Another longer pause followed the question. He stared at the bevelled panel, his mind imagining Avon moving over to the comm on the flight deck.
Avon's voice said, "The damage is sufficient. The template they used to create the clones has been destroyed along with the research and we have the wolves."
He pressed the comm button. "Good. Reya, take the ship out."
"Have you decided what to do with them?" Reya's voice asked.
"We'll have to discuss it. For now, just take us out. Not towards the border, they'll be expecting that. Use your discretion."
The clones, standing in an orderly line snaking out from the medical unit, and still menacing in their mutoid uniforms, all snapped to attention when they saw him. "Sir."
They were so young, eleven, twelve at most. Strong and burdened by knowledge children of their age should not have. Momentary dizziness came over him as a flood of memories chose that moment to become unblocked.
He was young, older than the clone faces before him but not by much. Sitting at the back of an enclosed transport vehicle, his mind blank, waiting. The back end of the vehicle swung upwards. There was pressure and a sucking sound as air rushed in. He breathed in deeply, enjoying the fresher air. There was a smell to it that he would soon learn to associate with the military. Dirt and sanitized violence.
The gridded ramp slid forward in a groan of metal. Light flooded the transport as he shielded his eyes, momentarily blinded.
"Out, soldier!" a sharp, ear-buffeting voice ordered him. He had instantly snapped up in his seat. "Yes, sir." His young voice was strong but respectful, just as he had been trained. Conditioned.
"Sir, is something wrong?" one of the young versions of himself asked, breaking through the images of the past. Argus blinked several times as his eyes focused. They were all looking at him, eyes curious, concerned.
"No, soldier." He caught himself. "I mean…" What should he call them?
"Is there something wrong?" Jenna asked as she led Avon to the medical unit.
"Just…I realize we haven't given them names yet. Can't call them all Jack."
"They have names," said Avon, removing his hand from Jenna's arm.
"Numbers aren't names," said Cally, who came to see what all the clones were craning their heads to look at.
Argus grimaced, "Avon…don't tell me you gave them all numbers."
The grim-faced Avon said flatly, "I didn't need to."
Cally guided Avon into the medical unit as the others followed her in. "The Federation had already assigned them numbers."
"Figures. The cold-hearted bastards," grumbled Jenna.
"They need proper names." The shadow of a frown darkened Argus's face. The unblocked memories had left a bitter taste.
"I don't see the relevance," said Avon. "There is efficiency to giving them numeric designations. For example…"
A mischievous sliver of a smile appeared. "There are numerous permutations of the name Jack."
Accompanied by Avon and Jenna, the next trip was to cargo bay three. Excited yelps and smells of wet fur greeted them as the door opened. A young pup, his tail wagging and claws skidding on the smooth metal surface, nearly slid into them. There was a surprised yelp and scrabbling paws as he raced back to his mother. * Mother! Mother! Scary two-legs! * The little wolf hid behind his mother, his ears and cute black nose sticking out from behind her tail.
Bright-Eyes sighed, craned her neck around, and nudged the pup. * They are part of our pack now, little one. There is nothing to fear. *
* They are? * the high-pitched little voice asked as two bright eyes peeked out at them. * But, but…they're two-legs. *
* We must not judge them by the number of legs, little one. It is not polite. Now apologize. *
The little wolf stepped out gingerly, his eyes uncertain. He stretched out his front legs and bent low. * I'm sorry. Mother says it's not polite. *
"It's all right," said Argus with an amused smile.
* Don't encourage him. * Brave-Heart rose up and arched his back in a long stretch. * He must learn what is proper for a wolf. *
"A sensible approach," said Avon.
* It is the wolf way. *
* As are humans, * nodded the wolf.
Brave-Heart's eyes scrunched and his mouth opened in an airy, wolfish laugh.
His mate, with the little wolf lingering behind her tail and peeking out at them, came to stand by his shoulder. * Your home has hard ground. *
"Yes, well…it's metal," said Argus.
* There is no dirt, leaves or grass? * She studied the light grey surface critically and there was a displeased tone in her mental voice.
"Not on a ship."
Brave-Heart exhaled sharply. * Is the hunting poor? *
"Well, we don't need to hunt…" He glanced over at Avon and Jenna for some help. "Avon would you like to explain it to them?"
The question hung in the air waiting for an answer. Jenna's lips readied to curl at the response she was certain they were going to hear. Argus's eyes were expectant and uncertain, but hopeful.
Avon's head tilted as he processed the question but most of all, he thought about these intelligent creatures. He wished he could see them but he was aware of them. Their psi abilities, along with his own poorly developed ones, enabled him to sense them as whispers at the edge of his consciousness. Just as he was becoming aware of Cally.
The questions of the wolves were rational, the flow of logic unmistakable. Remarkable given the alien environment they found themselves in.
An intelligent man can adapt. Apparently, so can intelligent wolves.
His voice was calm, factual. "Humans obtain their food differently from wolves. We do not need to hunt. We use machines to produce food."
Brave-Heart tilted his head in query. * Machines kill the prey for you? * He sounded sceptical.
"We have special devices that create food. You will see when we operate the machine. We will have one brought here."
Argus remembered the reaction of the Wolf in his head to the processed food. These wolves might have the same reaction. "We could pick up some fresh supplies."
The other two humans in the room stared at him with both sighted and sightless eyes.
"They might like some fresh meat."
"And bones to gnaw on, no doubt," said Avon, his voice getting drier by the minute.
"Yes, that too."
"It will taste better for them."
"We are not a culinary establishment."
Argus rubbed his sore shoulder and wished he didn't feel so outnumbered at times when talking to Avon and his dry intellect. "It was just an idea."
"On the other hand, a ship full of sick wolves would disturb the smooth functioning of the ship."
"Oh." It was Argus's turn to stare and then he sighed. "Sometimes, Avon…I wish you would come to these decisions faster."