Mornings, Sester could have done without them. He yawned, stretching his arms over his head, and studied his reflection in the mirror. A little red-eyed but otherwise presentable.
He pulled the back edge of his dark grey jacket to straighten out the lines. His face was relaxed but without his customary smile, and there was a feeling of well-being and the remnants of the euphoria he felt yesterday.
He was glad he hadn’t kill the clones. They were very much like Jack. He would have to make certain they were hidden in a secure place, away from the Guild and the Guild’s enemies. That was why he was up this early.
Someone was following him. Sester took the next corner and suddenly turned to look behind him. Nothing. He continued on, headed to the flight deck. Was he being paranoid, or... His nose wrinkled. What’s that smell? Oh... Sester chuckled, This is going to be fun.
But where was Kirsten? Why isn’t she ambushing me or trying to lock me in handcuffs? Is this the next stage of the game?
Baxter scratched his head. “What happened to them all?” The other mystified soldiers shrugged their shoulders as they stared at the empty corner in the gym.
“Is there something wrong?” Reya entered, dressed in a simple white short-sleeved shirt and black knee-length shorts for her morning exercises. Behind her were the clones. They all wore similar clothes in different colours, folded up at the sleeves and legs.
She stared at the empty corner too. “What happened to all the crash mats?”
Corinne pulled Vila along, an excited bounce in her step and smiling from ear to ear. “Who should we see first?”
“Who?” he stifled a yawn.
“The cubs or the little Jacks.”
“The cubs are cute, aren’t they?” They looked like puppies. “But I’m not sure if the wolves will let you touch them.
“But we’re not going to hurt them.”
“Wolves are very protective,” said Vila, imagining sharp fangs, or worse. “They might not let us near them.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” She frowned slightly, her brows knitted in thought. “We’ll need an introduction. Argus could tell them.”
“In the meantime, we can see the little Jacks. Maybe we can help name them.”
“Now that’s an idea.”
“Are you ready?” Cally’s warm, sensitive fingers touched Avon’s arm.
He lay on a bio-bed, trying to convince himself there was no need for emotions. “I’m ready,” he said impassively.
A rack of modified blood serum vials sat on the table beside them, filled with a mixture of the ones retrieved from Tingash and the temporary cure developed from Avon’s research. One had a thin tube dangling from the top.
Not wanting to be the centre of attention or more importantly, sympathy, Avon refused to let anyone else know the serum was being tested. The only other person who knew was Argus, but that was by agreement, not by choice. Even the medical specialists stayed a discreet distance away to give him space.
Cally slipped a band around Avon’s arm and tightened it, making his veins stand out in dark relief. She picked up the pointed end of the tube. There was no reaction on Avon’s face as she inserted the needle and turned on the pressure valve. The red liquid snaked its way through the tube and disappeared into his arm.
Would there be a negative reaction?
* You’re worried. * Avon’s head was turned towards her, an intense look on his face.
* How did you know? * She took his hand in hers.
* It’s not telepathy, I assure you. *
* I must be very predictable, * she said lightly.
* Some predictability is reassuring. * The cool liquid spread through his body, producing a calming, detached effect. Strange. He usually hated the feeling of drugs entering his body. It had always been an unpleasant reminder of the loss of control over his life. He was feeling oddly melancholic.
Was this an unexpected side effect of the blood serum or was it because he had no certainty of the outcome? Neither was preferable.
The melodrama of final words was one his unsentimental mind could not accept, but this wasn’t about sentiment, it was about need.
These last few years had taught him that memories were important. They had drowned him in darkness and filled him with pain, but there were the other ones, the ones that kept him alive. They had become a lifeline for him, something he could hold onto even in his darkest moments, particularly about her.
Just as she was now. Avon squeezed the warm, soothing hand. She needed memories she could hold onto for those dark times that were inevitable in this universe. Ones of him...they were a poor reward but it was all he could offer her. * Statistically, I have been a fool more times than not, except with you. *
* Are you saying that I’m a statistical anomaly? *
* You are, * he said gravely. Even with his limited psi abilities, he could use his normal impassive voice, flat, but lowered, achieving a rough silky quality that was like a comforting caress.
Avon groaned and his body stiffened, his hand gripping tightly around hers.
“Avon!” She looked quickly at the life monitors. His heart was beating fast, his temperature rising rapidly. “It’s getting worse.” Moreover, there was no antidote for the antidote.
Doctor Sun and the medical specialist rushed over. Their examination was swift and proficient.
Sun was calm and reassuring. “It’s good news. The serum mixture is counteracting the poison.” He touched the vial that was emptying into Avon’s bloodstream. “We never expected it to work this quickly.”
“What about the pain, Doctor?” Avon’s agonized hold on her hand was painful, cutting off circulation, but she refused to let him go. Her mind sent healing impulses towards him.
Dr. Sun’s kindly almond eyes were full of compassion. “It is the action of the counteragent fighting the poison. Because the drug acts on the individualized metabolism, the effect is deep and reversal will most likely cause pain.”
The specialist brought over an injector and applied it to Avon’s neck. There was a slight hiss.
Sun said, “We are giving him a mild pain blocker. It will take the edge off what he is feeling, but we can’t risk anything stronger. There are too many unknown factors in the serum that may be affected if we introduce other drugs into his system.”
Avon let out a shaky sigh as the pain lessened enough for him to open his eyes. He relaxed his grip on Cally’s hand but did not let go. “The serum mixture works?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Sun.
Sun knew by now that Avon respected and demanded the unvarnished truth. “It’s hard to determine with the available information. All we do know is that the serum mixture is having a negative impact on the poison. What the final effect of the battle will be remains to be seen.”
Sester charged to the flight deck, slowing down as he arrived at the steps. He entered as his old self, composed and slightly amused. “Your lack of subtlety has reached dizzying new heights.”
Argus looked up from his contemplation of his flight panel with a startled and irritated look on his face. “What are you talking about?”
Knowing Avon was in the med unit testing the serum, the last place he wanted to be was on the flight deck alone, but having Sester here was worse than being alone. He unclenched a tight fist and growled, “What are you talking about?”
“The wolf you have following me.”
Before Argus denied this outrageous accusation, a black nose on a furry grey muzzle poked out from the top of the flight deck steps and quickly disappeared. Argus burst into laughter. “I don’t think they trust you.”
“No thanks to you I bet.”
“I like these wolves.” Argus smiled, trying to achieve the same irritating effect Sester usually had on him, “But I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Sometimes being a psychostrategist could spoil the fun of reacting unreasonably. Sester knew Argus didn’t lie easily. He grumbled, “I don’t suppose you want to tell them to stop?”
“Not really.” Argus didn’t try at all to suppress the smirk on his face.
“Where could they be?” Corinne gaped at the empty cargo bay. It was full of camp-beds, each with a pillow placed on neatly folded blankets.
“Reminds me of being in Juvie,” Vila shuddered, remembering a misspent youth in various juvenile penal rehab centres. They were all like this, trying to make everyone the same. Boring them into submission.
“It’s...” Vila looked into her beautiful, innocent eyes and hesitated. He hoped she would never know the inside of a prison or ‘rehab’ facility. “Not a good place. Now if I were a clone, where would I go?”
“Vila,” Corinne tugged on his arm excitedly, her voice a whisper. “A wolf!”
A furry creature slinked in, hesitating at the threshold and eyeing them nervously. He sniffed and his eyes opened wide. The creature gave a low bark, raced in, sank his teeth into a pillow and raced out with it dragging behind him.
“Wait a minute!” Vila took a few steps after it and stopped, wondering if it was a good idea chasing after a creature that was armed with sharp fangs.
“I wonder what he wanted with it,” asked Corinne.
Vila sighed. “We’d better find out.”
“Do you plan to annoy me until I tell the wolf to stop following you?” Argus asked, his voice a low, gruff rumble.
Sester, sitting with his feet up on the table, looked up from the contemplation of his fingers. “I’m waiting for something.”
“For what?” His shoulders were tense and stiff.
“I don’t like giving spoilers.”
“You like giving me a headache.”
“That too.” For the first time since arriving, Sester grinned.
“Argus, uh...” Vila stood at the top of the steps, looking around carefully. “Did you know there’s a wolf out here?”
“Come in, Vila,” Argus gestured to him, glad of any company that wasn’t Sester. “Yes, he’s here to watch him.”
“Did you want something?”
“It’s...about the other wolves. You’d better come and take a look.”
This day was getting better and better, and he still didn’t know how Avon was doing. “Where?”
“The storage room where you put the wolves.”
“All right. I’ll call one of the duty sergeants to take over here and you,” he stared pointedly at Sester, “are coming with me.”
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
“They are very industrious.” Sester’s face was completely humourless. “And creative. Not to mention extremely adaptive. It must be a survival trait. Do you know what it looks like?”
“Don’t say it,” Argus growled at him.
In the space of one night, one of the larger storage rooms had been transformed from a functional room to an artistically comfortable living space. Shredded blue material covered the ground. They looked suspiciously like crash mat material. Two wolves were playing tug-of-war with...something long, rubberlike, with a metallic handles at the ends. Three others were having fun jumping and crashing into a training dummy, its surface scarred with long scratches.
Argus groaned. That was his favourite one; it was capable of a wide variety of techniques.
Corinne said, “We think that’s a den.”
In the corner, piled high with various equipment from around the ship, was a cave of sorts with a large, wolf-sized entrance.
Vila nodded. “We think the cubs are in there.”
“That’s what happened to the equipment from the gym.”
Argus jumped at Reya’s voice behind him. She was one of the few people who could sneak up on him, but that didn’t explain why he didn’t hear the young clones who tagged along behind her in two well-ordered lines.
“I suppose we should have thought of this,” she sighed. “Wolves have different needs. I think they were trying to tell us yesterday.”
“That’s why they were asking all those questions.”
Four little bundles of fur raced out, chasing each other. Bright-Eyes and Brave-Heart came out of the cave at a more dignified speed, their eyes amused.
The cubs ran towards the humans, skidding on the metal surface. They were laughing in wolf-like fashion, sending out ripples of joy, obviously enjoying the sensation of sliding.
They ran around in circles. * Look, look, mother! Two-legs! *
* Yes, little ones. Don’t scare them, * said Bright-Eyes.
A pup, with one ear twitching, asked them excitedly, * Do you want to play? *
The four little wolves suddenly stopped and their eyes opened wide. They squeezed past the legs of the adults and poked their heads out of the door. The clones had been looking at each other in puzzlement, but now they all stared at the cubs with wonder on their faces.