Sharp-Eyes made his way back to the den room, nodding politely to the humans he encountered, except for the snarl directed at the Sester-human who always seemed to have a smile on his face. He didn't like creatures that found amusement in everything.
The young wolf, his ears pointed forward in alertness, and his nails making clicking sounds on the flat surface, made his way unerringly through the corridors. Odours of artificial food wafted towards him on the left. He turned right at the next junction, smelling two humans before he could see them.
“Sharp-Eyes!” Vila exclaimed while Corinne, a vision in a pale peach dress made motions to touch the wolf.
The wolf pulled back his lips slightly in irritation, but remembering not to bare his fangs. * One is not a pet. * His large brown eyes glared at her.
“Oh, look, Vila. He’s just like Avon,” said Corinne, keeping her hands open in a friendly gesture, careful not to pet the wolf’s invitingly shaggy fur.
* Avon, * nodded the serious wolf.
“You know,” Vila’s lips pursed as he eyed the wolf, “We could use a wolf in our act.”
Sharp-Eyes cocked his head, * You require assistance? *
“That’s a wonderful idea!” said Corinne, bubbling with enthusiasm. She could already envision dressing the wolf up in creative costumes.
* One is already committed to Avon, * said the young wolf.
“Oh, but this will be for Avon. It’ll be a surprise. Avon liked my last magic show.”
* He said this? * asked the wolf, his eyes indicating he required proof.
“You can ask him. Besides, it won’t take up too much time. You can help me when you’re on a break.”
The wolf inclined his head, * One is on a break now. *
“Great! Then you can help us now! Step right this way!” Vila waved his hand with a flourish, indicating the next corridor and the cargo bay where his ‘stage’ had been set up.
Argus rubbed a tense neck; he could feel a headache coming on and the day was only half over. It wasn’t just the colourful designs that had been splashed liberally on the corridor walls and floors. It wasn’t even the bare footprints on the ceilings; it was the paw prints next to them that were making his head spin. How had they managed that and what had they done to the wolves?
It was one thing to encourage creative expression and initiative but this was…giving him headaches. He wanted to encourage the boys to become more independent and to learn to have fun, but they needed to set some guidelines for acceptable levels of fun.
Colourful tracks led back to the storage room that had been converted into a dormitory for the boys. Too bad they didn’t detour through the communal shower area. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly before putting his hand to the door panel. What was he going to find?
A scuff of boots made him turn around.
“Commander Argus.” The sensible Dain approached with Jenna next to him. The Lieutenant's normally steady eyes were touched by concern and apprehension. He seemed to be bracing himself.
Jenna seemed amused at the situation, caught in a dilemma of indecision. Her relationship with Dain was nothing more than awkward friendship for now. She didn't know if she wanted anyone to get any other ideas.
Argus’s voice was gruff as he gestured to the unseemly redecorating. “Dain, Jenna, do you know about any of this?”
Dain squared his shoulders like the good, dependable and responsible officer he was. One that felt guilty and was ready to face a firing squad, or at the very least a loud reprimand. “Yes, sir. I’m afraid it’s my fault.”
"I volunteered to teach the boys how to draw. It was going very well. They're very well behaved."
Argus grunted but didn't say anything.
"But…" Dain looked nervously at the closed door. Were the boys even there? "I was called away. I was only going to be away for a few minutes and they were…"
Dain rubbed his palm against his leg and glanced at the door again. "Yes…I didn't think it would do any harm. I took longer than I thought it would. An hour. I told the boys to continue. To express themselves. To let out their creativity out and draw what they felt inside. To free their minds from the conventions they'd learned…" His eyes became wide as saucers. "Oh…no…"
Jenna stared at Dain as Argus sighed loudly, "I see the problem."
"Jenna didn't have anything to do with it," Dain added hastily. "We just met when I was on my way back. She wanted to see how the boys were doing."
"Maybe we should go in and see what we've created," suggested Jenna.
The boys were seated cross-legged in an orderly circle, large drawing pads across their knees and roughly shaped palettes with mashed mounds of colours in one hand and well-used brushes in the other. They all looked up as one, their backs straightening in recognition of authority entering the room. Statue-like faces with only the eyes moving followed their entrance. It all looked in order except for streaks of paint along the floor leading to the circle and the three wolves in the centre, daintily stepping on pads of paper on the floor with coloured feet.
A pained look cross Argus's face. "We have to deal with this, Dain."
"We don't have a choice."
"I agree, sir."
"We can't allow…"
They looked at each other, two men who felt like non-swimmers thrown into the deep end. The deep end looked awfully tempting.
"I suppose I should deal with this," said Argus reluctantly.
"Yes, I suppose so," said Dain, with just a little too much relief in his eyes.
Argus gave a disgruntled, barely audible growl. His eyes swept over the boys, taking in their impassive, unsuspecting faces. "Jenna, I don't suppose…"
The boys eyes were focussed on Argus but Jenna had been noticing eyes glancing in her direction and they were not impassive. More…very interested. She hoped in a sisterly fashion.
"Oscar!" Everyone jumped at the voice of command that boomed, echoing off the walls like a crack of thunder.
The boy bounded up at attention. "Sir!"
"At ease. You're not a soldier. You don't have to…"
Oscar's face fell in a deep frown and all the boys looked concerned.
Even in the midst of battle, surrounded by enemy troops did not make Argus feel this sense of impending panic and doom. "Ah…yes, you are a good soldier, Oscar. All of you are. What I mean is…you're young. And you have many options ahead of you. You don't have to…"
That produced a sea of confused young faces.
"Er…I mean. I have no idea what I mean." His shoulders drooped a bit and he took a deep breath.
"Do you want some help?" offered Jenna.
"Please." There was gratitude in his eyes, a heavy weight lifting a little.
"Boys," Jenna's voice was friendly but firm. "You’ve done well with your drawings. It's very colourful and beautiful. The ones on the ceiling," she smothered a grin in order not to encourage them further, "were very creative."
Oscar's face flushed slightly pink and he said shyly, "Did you…like it? It was my idea."
"How did you…" Argus asked with a little too much interest. "I mean…it was very creative."
"Yes, very," said Jenna. "You will have to show us how you did it. Were the wolf prints your idea?"
Oscar smiled slightly. "They're not real wolf prints."
"We thought…" Jenna looked at Argus and Dain.
They all burst out laughing, including the boys as the wolves lifted their heads and howled.
"Alright, I must admit, that was very imaginative," said Argus.
"And funny," said Jenna, still smiling. "But in future, the ship is off-limits in terms of creative efforts. Confine your art to the materials provided."
Oscar nodded, his young face serious again. "Did we do something wrong, sirs?"
"No," said Argus, shaking his head. "You followed the parameters of your mission. But in future, these will be the new guidelines."
"Now, you go inside here, Sharp-Eyes," said Corinne, with a practiced flourish of her hands. The wolf cautiously stuck his head inside the large cabinet, studying its shadowed interior.
* What does this box do? *
"You go inside and disappear." Vila tapped the side of the cabinet with his magician's wand. "Just like that."
The wolf looked at him and then the box. * Very well. * He stepped gingerly into the box and turned around to face them.
Vila smiled with pleasure at the wolf's simple trust in his magic skills. "Now, Corinne will close the door. Don’t worry. I have it all arranged." Corinne swung the door closed.
"We'll swing you around a few times to show there's no tricks. Well…" He grinned as Corinne rotated the cabinet on its large wheels. "None that the audience can see. You alright in there?"
There was an answering bark as Corinne turned the box back to the front.
"Good. Good." Vila pointed his wand. "Now, on the count of three…one…" He circled with the wand. "Two." Another bigger circle this time. "Three!" Vila tapped the box smartly and it exploded. Flames consumed the box and dust and debris came flying outwards as Vila and Corinne looked properly shocked, their hands covering their faces.
Vila smiled. "That worked very well, don't you think?" He paced the area where the box had been, kicking aside bits.
"Yes, very!" said Corinne, her face flushed with excitement as she brushed the dust off her dress.
"Now for the big finish…" Vila waved with his wand again. "One, two…" He paused for a moment. Corinne looked beautiful in her peach dress. The smudge of debris on her nose only made her look even more delectable. "Do you want to do the honours?" He handed her the wand.
"I'd love to." She gave him a kiss on the nose, which was more magic than he could produce with all of his tricks. It made it hard to stop himself from making it more than a peck.
"Yes…well," he cleared his throat and loosened his hot collar. "Anytime you're ready."
Corinne pointed the wand. "Three!" Her thumb pressed an invisible indentation on the side, there was a sharp crack and then smoke shot forth; red and blue plumes that swirled and twisted together.
"Tada!" said Vila. "And…where's the wolf?"
Vila and Corinne stared in shock as the smoke cleared.
"Try it again, Corinne. Maybe it's stuck." He looked up at the ceiling.
Corinne waved the wand again, with a bigger flourish. "One, two, three!"
There was a crack and more smoke…but no wolf.
"Oh my…" she said. "Vila, you'd better check. I hope the wolf is ok."
"So do I!" said Vila as he raced to get a ladder.
"You were late," said Avon as the wolf appeared on the teleport pad in his lab.
Sharp-Eyes cocked his head. * The magic worked. *
"Magic?" Avon's eyes narrowed. "Teleport technology is not magic."
* One was helping the Vila and Corinne humans. *
"Ah," said Avon as he brought over a tray of equipment and sat down next to the wolf.
* Would you like to know what we were doing? *
The wolf huffed and nodded. * It is irrelevant. *
An hour later, Vila and Corinne approached Avon's lab with heavy steps, worried frowns and deep lines of anxiety on their faces.
"He's got to be somewhere. We'll look all over the ship. Maybe get some of the soldiers to help," said Corinne, linking her arms with Vila's in support.
"That's not what I'm worried about," said Vila. "What am I going to tell Avon? I lost his wolf in a magic accident?"
"Maybe he'll understand. We won't stop until we find him."
"This is Avon. He'll probably…" He stopped as they entered the lab.
"Doesn't look like he's here," said Corinne.
Like a creature rising from the depths, Avon's head poked up from the other side of the workbench. He pulled himself up. "What is this intrusion?"
Vila swallowed hard. The chances of Avon believing a magic accident were slim to less than none. "Uh Avon…"
Avon's eyes narrowed, he could imagine the guilty look on Vila's face. "What did you do?"
"It's about your wolf. I mean, Sharp-Eyes. Well…" The sightlessly disturbing glare was making Vila's voice quaver. "I asked him to help…and…well…he disappeared."
"I know," said Avon flatly, not pleased they had commandeered his wolf for their entertainment.
Vila asked, his mouth open in shock. "You…know?"
"Now, if you're quite finished." He felt along the workbench for the laser probe.
Vila scratched his puzzled head. "You're not worried?"
"Find another wolf for your frivolous activities. I'm busy."
Corinne looked at him in astonishment. She'd heard stories of Avon's ruthlessness, mainly from Vila but she didn't quite believe them. "You…don't care?"
"Why should I?" said Avon coldly, unhappy that they were still there and wondering why they thought this was such a big issue.
"You want us to replace the wolf?" Vila shook his head. "Just like that?"
"What is this?" asked Avon, his eyes narrowing as he realized something else was going on.
"Well…we lost your wolf," said Vila. "I thought you'd changed a little. But I guess old habits die hard. It's only an animal to you."
There was a sharp huff from the other side of the table and a scratching sound. A sharp muzzle appeared from the side of the workbench.
* One is a guide to Avon. *
Vila and Corinne staggered back a few steps. "That…that's…Sharp-Eyes!" Vila stammered, pointing at the dark apparition.
Avon's eyes narrowed again. "Of course. He's helping me."
"But…" Corinne flopped down in a chair. "How did he…the trick wasn't supposed to bring him here."
"Ah." Comprehension dawned in a flash of revelation. "How much of a Mu wave did you use?"
Vila scratched his head again. "Only in the tolerance you told us. I checked it. Twice."
"Only twice," Avon said with flat sarcasm.
"I don't understand it."
"Obviously. Or this wouldn't have happened."
"I'm really sorry, Avon," said Vila with as much sincerity as he felt.
Corinne came to stand beside Vila. "I am too, Avon. This will never happen again."
Avon 'stared' at them for what seemed like a long time, then a mischievous grin turned up one corner of his lips. "It had better not."
"Thanks, Avon," said Vila, exhaling in a release of tension.
"I require advanced notice if you intend to use the wolf. We are conducting crucial teleport experiments inside the ship."
"Right," said Vila. "Wait a minute…did you just say teleport experiments inside the ship?"
Avon's lips curled in a lopsided grin.