Vila stared and twenty-four pairs of identical eyes stared back at him. His fertile imagination gave him visions of being in the middle of a horror vid. Any minute now, their eyes would glow or they would set him on fire with their minds. His mum always told him horror vids would give him nightmares; she’d never imagine he'd land in the middle of one.
At least they weren’t wearing those hideous black mutoid uniforms, but why did they have to stare like that? Any harder and he'd be checking for laser holes.
It made him feel naked. He swallowed nervously and did up another button on his cream-coloured shirt.
Teaching the clones how to play seemed like a good idea when he volunteered. And yes, he reminded himself, I volunteered for this. It was a good thing Avon wasn't here, he'd sure to have a few snarky comments, probably something about biting off more than he could chew.
This is silly. These are kids. They just look like they can take me apart with their thumbs.
And here he was with just a whistle on a lanyard and a ball tucked under his arm. He could feel the ridges digging into his side. Vila just wished the clones weren't so big. Avon said they were only eleven, according to their vat data, but they looked larger than any eleven year olds he'd ever met. Plus, it gave him bad childhood memories of bullies with thick fists and a lack of personal hygiene. Not that the clones were dirty, in fact, they were scrupulously clean. It was just the idea of their size and the fact they'd probably been taught to dismantle people in a thousand and one ways.
Vila took a deep breath. This was not helping and he was here to help.
What game should he teach the clones? They were trained to be soldiers, or conditioned to it, he wasn't quite sure which. They'd like something physical. Running, jumping, and probably hitting things, preferably not him.
Vila gripped the whistle tightly and sent a blast of air through it. He winced at the shrill echo as twenty-four pairs of eyes blinked. The sound had the same effect as an old teacher of his who had a voice that could shatter glass and an unfortunate personality to match.
The clones stood waiting. Vila straightened his shoulders; he was determined to do this. “We’re going to have an old fashioned game of Bulldog.”
“Oscar”, who hadn’t chosen a better name yet, said, “What is the object of this mission, sir?"
“It’s not a mission.” Vila flipped the ball up in the air and caught it with exaggerated flair behind his back. “We’re going to have some fun.”
Oscar’s young eyes contained the seriousness of an adult. He nodded. “Fun is the mission objective.”
“No, no, no...” This was going to be much harder than he thought.
Harry, a clone next to “Oscar” wearing one of Argus’s old military-fatigues, intoned, “We will serve more efficiently if we are happy. Having fun increases happiness.”
The young clones nodded in unison as they remembered what Sester had told them. Vila wished they wouldn’t do that, it made him feel like he was in a robot factory.
Oscar’s young voice was grave. “We will draw up battle plans.”
Vila shook his head vigorously. “Wait! You don’t need battle plans to play.”
The young Jacks looked blankly at him as their minds quickly processing this new detail.
Oscar tugged at his ill-fitting grey shirt, one of Argus’s old ones that was too broad in the chest. “Is this a test of our adaptive ability and creativity, sir?”
“It’s not a test. It’s...a game.” Vila knew he was going to have to do better than this. He rubbed the back of his neck, wondering if it might be easier to pop the clones back into the pods and teach them that way. Maybe Avon could whip up a few temporary pods.
“You’ve never...” He was about to ask if they never played games before, but that was pointless, of course they hadn’t, that was why he was here. “Have you been on a mission before?”
Oscar ran his fingers through his military-cut hair, a trace of embarrassment in his eyes. “No, sir.”
“Oh.” Vila’s eyes softened. These weren’t children; they were babies, ones crammed full of knowledge they’d never used before. Everything was new to them. “Never mind about that. How would you like a proper mission?”
Twenty-four pairs of eyes brightened and Vila's heart became lighter. That's something, isn't it? They want to do something.
But then again, were they conditioned that way? The Federation would want them to feel good when obeying orders, wouldn't they? At least the clones had feelings, it was better than nothing. They weren't machines.
Oscar said, "What is the mission, sir?"
"You want a mission?"
"What I mean is, you would feel something if I gave you one."
"Our purpose is to serve."
Vila's imagination was now giving him visions of going around in circles. He was already getting dizzy.
"How do you feel right now with nothing to do?"
"Yes, but, don't you feel bored, frustrated, impatient?"
"We do not understand why this is relevant."
"You're even more like Avon than Avon is," grumbled Vila.
The clicking of nails on the floor announced new arrivals. Three young wolves came in tentatively, their black noses sniffing, and eyes sparkling with excitement.
* May we play too? * asked the one on the left, projecting to all of them. The band of white across her shoulders looked like a furry shawl as she moved.
“Well,” said Vila, a wide grin across his face. “That opens up a whole range of possibilities. I was about to give the boys a mission.”
The wolves came further into the room, led by the young female. * Can we have a mission too? * The two male wolves huffed, their tongues lolling in anticipation of something fun.
Hmm. Clones, wolves...something that would challenge them both...something fun and feels like a mission. “How about a game of catch?”
The young female wolf did a quick, excited circle on the spot. * We love catch! You can chase us! * She raced out in a blur of motion, followed quickly by the other two wolves. There was a short beat then the clones tore after them.
“Wait, that wasn't what I meant!” Vila shouted after them, but it was too late. "Don't hurt the wolves!" He rushed after them.
“Silk underwear?” A half-dressed Argus held the offending blue garment with two fingers, his nose wrinkling as if it smelled rank, which was ridiculous since it was new.
An equally half-dressed Reya said distractedly, “Yes, do you like them? I’ve been learning sewing techniques and I thought I’d do something nice for you.” She slid open another drawer, looking for an elusive pair of black slacks.
“This is nice?” he asked, his eyebrows rising high on his forehead.
Sighing heavily and settling on a pair of dark blue ones, Reya finally glanced up and saw the outrage on her mate's face. “I thought Wolf might like it. I know he’s been complaining about itching.”
“You did this for the Wolf?”
* She is a thoughtful mate. *
Argus growled under his breath. * She’s not your mate. *
* She is still thoughtful. * In Argus’s mind, there was the shadow of an image, the dark coated wolf lying down, his muzzle resting on his outstretched paws, and his glowing amber eyes now dull.
Argus felt the melancholy of the creature inside him as if it were his own. * What’s wrong with you? *
The faraway look in her bond-mate’s eyes was becoming very familiar to Reya. “Argus, are you talking to the Wolf? Does he like the silk?”
There was a long blink of dark brown eyes. The Wolf said from Argus’s mouth, “One is very kind.”
“Oh.” Reya’s eyes widened. “Hello, Wolf.”
The Wolf’s mouth opened in a wide, friendly smile. His head nodded enthusiastically. “Reya-mate.”
“Do you like the silk? It should be much less itchy.”
The creature held up the blue briefs, studying it curiously. “One would prefer no clothes.”
“Uh, yes...well...” A pink flush spread across Reya’s cheeks. “It’s not convenient for a human. There are conventions we follow.”
Wolf sighed. “One understands. They are the rules of the pack.” In one motion, the trousers and pants came off.
“Wait!” Reya quickly turned around, her pink cheeks becoming red. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know every inch of Argus’s, now nude, body, but this was awkward. He quickly pulled on the silk briefs.
“It does not itch one,” said the Wolf, wiggling his hips. “Thank you.”
Reya turned slowly; ready to hide her eyes if needed but she had to suppress a giggle at his motions. “I’m glad.”
There were shouts and the thunder of pounding feet.
“What’s that?” Reya stepped towards the door but Wolf was already ahead of her.
Avon unsnapped the catch on the leather collar. "This is yours." He held it out to the wolf.
The creature sniffed it cautiously, touching it with his moist nose. He took it carefully between his teeth and began yanking on it. Avon instinctively pulled back on the other end. "What are you doing?"
* Play? * asked the wolf, keeping pressure on his end of the collar.
"This is not a toy."
* Oh. * The wolf let it go.
It's just as well I sealed the mechanism. Avon felt the workbench in front of him for a handy cloth and wiped wolf slobber from the flexible leather band. "This goes around your neck."
"Rrr?" The wolf cocked its head and regarded the band with curiosity.
"It's a teleport collar. We have a teleport device on the ship that will instantaneously transport matter between two points. It requires a contact signal and an alloy that provides the key for matter reduction and transmission. The collar provides that signal and the key."
"Rrr." the wolf made a noise of understanding, which Avon doubted. No matter how intelligent it was, the wolf was still an animal. They were exploring the extent of its mental capacities. At least Sharp-Eyes seemed to trust him and for some reason, that was comforting.
Avon carefully felt for the wolf's neck and snapped the collar on.
* Test? * asked the wolf, twisting his head to the left and right to get the feel of the object around his neck.
"Not yet. This is only a test of the locking mechanism and the fit of the collar. We will test the teleport function on non-living matter first."
Avon fit his fingers along the inner side of the band, checking its looseness. The fur was thick and warm. He imagined the wolf was suited for most extremes of weather and temperature conditions. A valuable adaptation.
"How do you find the collar? Does it impede motion?"
* An object around one's neck is unfamiliar, but it does not impede motion. Must I wear this? *
"Only on missions when we need to leave the ship."
The wolf dipped his head once. * Then it is acceptable. *
"Good." Avon slipped his fingers from the collar.
* We will test the collar? *
"When we reach our destination. We will send a test object through."
The wolf cocked his head again and his eyes blinked once. * The teleport device does not work inside the ship? *
Avon tilted his head in amused contemplation. "Now that's a good question. Technically, there's no reason why it shouldn't work inside the ship." He stood up and held out his hand, and the wolf rose immediately to guide him.
"To the teleport room."