Argus rubbed the side of his temple, trying to ease the tension. Ever since the memory blocks about Tingash started breaking down, there was a dull ache in his head. Not enough for drugs, but it was irritating. Occasionally it would flare and it felt like someone taking a power hammer to the inside of his head but usually he could manage.
The Tellaran doctors said it was natural; his mind was trying to readjust and heal the pathways that had been closed to his conscious mind. They recommended rest to allow his mind to repair itself, but he couldn’t afford the time. There were far too many things to deal with. Besides, he was a tough soldier and he couldn’t let something like this stop him.
“Avon...” Argus stepped through the doors into Avon’s lab and found it empty. Where is he?
There was something...
Why is it everywhere I go, I smell wolf, even in Avon’s lab? He’s not going to like that. I’ll have to speak to Brave-Heart again.
Loud breathing sounds. Wait a minute. If a wolf got in here while Avon was away...he’s not going to like that. Argus walked to the other side of the cabinets and poked his head around.
There was a growl, and then a dark muzzle with exposed teeth came into view.
“Yes, he is loud.” Argus heard Avon’s voice.
“Avon, what the...”
His resident genius sat cross-legged on the floor, a wolf next to him, angling itself protectively to prevent Argus from coming closer.
“These wolves have been manipulated,” said Avon.
Argus sank to the floor opposite Avon and his wolf. “We know that, they’ve been taking Brave-Heart.”
“Not just that. These wolves understand us. Don’t you find that odd?” Avon felt the warmth of the furry body brushing against him. He reached out, found the wolf’s shoulder, and pressed lightly. The wolf sat down beside him like a silent sentinel.
Argus was mesmerized by the creature’s eyes as it stared at him. Unlike the other members of the pack, this one was almost entirely black, with a wide ruffle of white across its shoulders, a streak of white along its tail and a splash of white on its muzzle. Its expressive amber eyes shone eerily against the dark fur. Any moment, he expected to hear its voice in his head. The wolf was not full-grown but its head already reached Avon’s chest.
His eyes widened. “They speak Federation Standard.”
“But that would mean...” He pressed the heel of his hand to his head. “...they wanted the wolves for something else, not just for conditioning.”
Avon’s flat voice was cool and comforting. “A program of systematic genetic manipulation.”
“Yes.” Argus rubbed the tightness that seemed to be spreading from the inside.
The wolf cocked its head; it seemed to be studying Argus. * One is in pain. *
Avon said, * You see something. *
* Your Alpha is ill. *
“I am not ill,” said Argus, removing his hand from his head and glaring at the creature. “Just a bit of a headache.”
Avon tilted his head. “You are ill.”
“You’re going to believe the wolf, over me?”
“In this matter.”
Avon and the wolf had their heads tilted at the same angle but in opposing directions. “Avon, have you adopted yourself a wolf?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Well, it looks like to me.”
“We are merely exploring the mental capacities of these wolves.”
The dark furry head turned to Avon, * We are? *
The corner of Avon’s lips twitched in the glimmer of a smile. * In a manner of speaking. *
* You are not teaching me to help the pack? * It’s soulful eyes stared into his, but not his physical eyes, it reached further, straining, opening up its perceptions farther than any of the other wolves were able to.
* All knowledge is useful. *
The wolf felt the flow of Avon’s consciousness and his tightly controlled emotions. It pushed further, needing to know him. * Useful to help the pack? *
* Yes. *
* But not the only reason? *
Avon lifted his head in surprise. The wolf was showing a degree of sophistication and understanding that was very interesting. This creature sought something he understood, the truth. * It is for scientific curiosity, to discover the truth of what was done to you by those who would harm your pack. *
The wolf nodded and its amber eyes blinked inside Avon’s mind. Questing, searching eyes that wanted to know him, that wanted to trust him but was afraid to. * You wish to protect your pack as well. *
Avon gasped, startled. * How did you do that? *
This was something he discovered he could do with Cally not that long ago. Was it possible the wolves were capable of this? It would mean their psi abilities were much more advanced than his meagre ones.
* I...don’t know, * said the wolf, its head cocked to one side as it tried to understand what it had just done.
* Are you able to do this with anyone else? Another human? *
* One has never tried before. *
* Are the other wolves able to do this? *
The wolf tilted his head to the other side. * No wolf can do this. *
* But you can. * Avon’s face reflected a controlled blankness as he thought of the implications. * This necessitates experimentation. *
Sharp-Eyes looked intently at Avon, the wolf’s breath lightly warming his face. * This does. *
* Try it on him. *
The amber eyes seemed to glow as the creature turned its intense gaze on Argus.
“Now, just a minute,” said Argus warily. “What are you two trying on me?”
“I know, I heard, but what kind of experiment?”
Leaning back on its haunches, the wolf’s head was level with Avon’s head. His hand was still lightly touching its shoulder, his fingers tangled in its dark, shaggy fur. “Sharp-Eyes was able to project a partial image into my mind.”
“Oh, and you want to see if he can do the same to me?”
He leaned closer to the wolf. “All right, what do I do?”
“All right.” He took a deep breath. “Wait a minute...”
The wolf’s nose twitched as it studied Argus. * This is your Alpha. *
* He likes to think so, * said Avon flatly.
An amused chuckle rumbled in Argus’s chest. “We are both Alphas.”
The wolf tilted its head and regarded him with sceptical eyes. * You will fight each other? *
* Constantly, * said Avon.
* You would beat him, * the wolf said decisively.
A wolfish grin curled Avon’s lips as he turned pointedly to Argus.
“I wouldn’t say that,” grumbled Argus, straightening his back and unconsciously puffing his chest. He felt distinctly outnumbered but he refused to back down. “You put him up to it, didn’t you?”
“Wolves are particularly astute creatures.” The grin crinkled the corners of Avon’s eyes.
“I knew it.”
* You would beat him with your mind, Avon-Alpha. * Sharp-Eyes nudged the side of Avon’s head with his wet nose, his soft breath tickling him. * But not with your hands. *
The two men faced the wolf with amazement.
“Did he just say you’re the brains and I’m the brawn?” asked Argus, rubbing his sore head and wondering how this conversation was going to end.
“Now that we’ve established our respective roles...”
Sharp-Eyes exhaled sharply and closed its eyes in a wolfish laugh.
Argus shook his head, “I knew it. You’re both ganging up on me.”
“You’re paranoid. Now, to the experiment. Sharp-Eyes...”
Argus sighed as the wolf concentrated, staring into his eyes, trying to reach as it had done before. After a few minutes without a ripple, the wolf shook its head vigorously and sneezed. * No success. *
“Regrettable,” noted Avon with a trace of disappointment, though it could also have been satisfaction. With him, sometimes it was hard to tell.
“If you no longer need me as a guinea pig...” Argus froze as a chill travelled down his spine. “I’ll...” His chest was suddenly tight. “...be leaving.”
The wolf whined. * The Alpha is ill. * Avon *felt* the creature's concern.
“It’s nothing, Avon. I have something to do.” He uncurled his legs and began to get up but Avon reached out to stop him, clumsily pushing against his chest.
Sester approached Kirsten’s cabin, his hand poised to press on the announcing chime. A wry smile curled his lips. I will play your game this time.
The woman had been avoiding him, he was sure of it. No traps sprung in unexpected corners or promises of sweet nothings, and not to mention a bit of tying up, in his cabin.
He remembered the last time; it seemed like a very long time ago, as a fragrant memory tickling his senses, spreading aching warmth throughout his body.
After becoming accustomed to her ambushes, it was disconcerting waiting for something that did not come. He knew he was playing into her hands but he needed to find out what the game was first before he could turn it to his advantage.
The door slid open. His eyes widened, just for a second in surprise. It was Jenna.
“What do you want?” she snarled.
“You’ve changed cabins?” he asked with polite charm.
“Who is it?” Kirsten’s voice came from inside.
You haven’t changed cabins. This is the new game. You and Jenna? An interesting combination, but no match for me.
“It’s him. Should I slam the door in his face?” said Jenna with the aggressive smile of a crocodile.
“Oh, let him in,” Kirsten’s not very thrilled voice replied.
Sester wore an amused smile as Jenna stepped aside, leaving him barely enough room to enter. He squeezed past her face-to-face, their bodies brushing against each other, and never losing his smile.
A chess set was set up on the table, with Kirsten sitting at one end. Jenna glared at him and sat back down in the other seat. “Your turn.”
Kirsten picked up a polished white bishop, rubbing it hard between her fingers, squeezing the life from its pristine body, before knocking a black knight on its ass and removing it from the board. She glanced at Sester with a sweet smile that was a douse of cold water on his exposed parts. “It appears I was wrong.” She put her bishop down and hit the timer button on her side.
“Wrong? About what?” asked Sester, purposely reacting to her words and not her manner. The mechanical, working part of his mind recognized the chess strategies of both women.
“I thought you didn’t know where my cabin was,” she said flatly as a point of information and without a hint of sarcasm.
Nicely done. “Is that what it’s about?” asked Sester, letting a smidgeon of disappointment show on his face, but quickly quashed. “You want me to come to you? Well, I’m here now.”
Kirsten was fully concentrated on the chess game and did not spare him another glance. “I’m busy.”
Playing hard to get? A bit pedestrian, but it can be diverting. “You’re... busy?” He allowed outrage to creep into his voice.
“Yes, you know, busy, as in no time to entertain you.”
Let her see an increase in tension and frustration, that’s what she liked to do to him. A touch of exasperation appeared on his face. “But you’re just entertaining Jenna.”
Jenna favoured him with an icy glare, “Very diplomatically put...”
“That’s different,” said Sester defensively. A man caught between two beautiful women, lucky him. He almost grinned but that wouldn’t do if he were to play his role in this little game. As long as it led to a delicious little session later with...
Kirsten stood up unexpectedly, her hands on her hips, her eyes flaring. “Get out!”
Sester took a step back, the amused expression abandoning his shocked face. The look of anguish on Kirsten’s face cut deeply. It was completely unexpected to see her reacting as a woman. “Kirsten...I don’t know what to say...”
“That’s a likely story.” Jenna’s eyes were merciless.
“What did I do?” His mind was racing, recalculating numbers that refused to fall into an organized, controllable pattern. Kirsten's reaction took his breath away, it hurt, because it was real.
“Everything and nothing!” Kirsten’s shout was a tree falling, and no warnings in the universe could prevent it from crushing their fragile relationship.
The reality of the moment brought out something he hadn’t realized, a truth that could not be denied regardless of whether this was a game or not.
Was this the fallout from what happened with the Thaarn? His unresolved lust and feelings for Reya, and his flirtatious nature had come out in full force; his weakness accentuated for all to see, for Kirsten to see.
He took a tentative step towards her, his hand extended in a placating gesture. “If this is about what happened when the Thaarn was...”
“Ow!” Sester covered his stinging cheek. “I’m sorry! Kirsten...”
Jenna stood up, an antagonistic look in her eyes.
Sester covered his other cheek defensively and took a step back. “And Jenna too...”
“Do we accept his apology?” asked Kirsten.
Sester felt like an animal in a social experiment, something he was very familiar with, but on the other end.
Jenna said coldly, “For a psychostrategist, it wasn’t very good was it?”
“That’s what I thought,” said Kirsten. They were matching ice sculptures, beautiful and not melting under Sester’s charm today. “You can leave now,” she said to him, “maybe you can try again tomorrow. You know where to find us.”
Sester backed out of the cabin and stared at the door as it closed in his face. He wasn’t sure whether to be amused, puzzled or worried.
One thing he was certain of, Kirsten was escalating their relationship and making him prove that he wanted it.