Episode 2: Barky, the Space-Wolf.

Five,four, three, two, one…

All Theda had ever wanted was a quiet life: a refuge somewhere, away from sibling rivalry and parental disdain. Carla had picked her up when she was on her beam end and promised space salvage would give her just that, along with some nail-biting patches of excitement and a lot of money along the way.

Now, after four months, it was all going wrong.

The week had started well. Carla had gone quiet about the space-wolves, and Theda had hoped the truce would hold. But, earlier today, that armistice had fallen apart in shreds.

It had started innocently enough. The massive bounty payment the Federation had awarded her and Carla for the capture of the Iskian slaver had paid for the complete refit of the bridge, including a panoramic window that wrapped round the front of the craft in a full semi-circle. Theda would sit for hours, leaning on her console and enjoying how the extraordinary clarity of the glass made her feel as if she were outside, smack in the middle of the space lane. Its empty darkness ran straight ahead, stars and meteor showers flashing to either side, bright jewels in the velvety blackness.

‘Look,’ she’d said to Carla, ‘the space-wolves are outside again. Barky is such a good mum, training the cubs the way she does. I wonder what she’s teaching them to do?’

Carla twisted her upper lip and snorted. ‘Who knows? How about not pooping in the landing bay?’

Theda swallowed back her irritation. ‘I cleared it all up, didn’t I? I told you I’d look after them.’

‘So you said.’ Carla’s voice was flat and emotionless. ‘Shame you don’t keep your word.’

Theda clenched her jaw, a small muscle jumping in her cheek. Any other day, she would have been first out into the bay to check for accidents. Barky took the cubs outside early to do their necessary business, but there were days when they didn’t make it out in time. So Theda would check the landing bay and make sure she cleaned it up before Carla was awake. Today, Carla hadn’t been able to sleep and had wandered out to the dock to admire the Sprinter, the beautiful state-of-the-art fighter craft that had fallen into their laps. And, guess what, she’d stepped straight into a line of steaming poop, then raced down to Theda and dragged her out of bed, insisting she clear the mess up immediately.

Theda had no problems in clearing up the mess. But why scream her out like that? ‘I said I’d clear it up, and I did. Why do you have a problem with that?’

‘I shouldn’t have to come and fetch you to clear up after them. If you can’t get them house-trained, I don’t want them here.’

‘They’re only puppies! You can’t expect babies not to have messes sometimes!’

Carla leaned in, her eyes gleaming. ‘I expect to live in a clean craft. Not one with crappy animals underfoot.’ She turned her head away and muttered under her breath. ‘and definitely not with crappy animals that stink like the wild dog house at the zoo on Dalmara.’

Theda swung round in her chair and slammed a fist onto Carla’s console, making her partner jump. ‘Don’t think I can’t hear you,’ she growled. ‘I don’t care if you think they are crappy or not. Barky and her cubs are here to stay. We agreed. Now shut your stinking mouth.’

Theda swivelled away from Carla to gaze through the window again, her heart thumping in her throat. She hated confrontation; it made her feel ill. But every day, the tension between them was worsening. If it wasn’t something to do with cubs, then Carla accused Theda of something else. She’d left the galley (or the bathroom, take your pick) untidy. Her clothes were shabby and didn’t reflect well oán the company. The tea she’d made was too weak. Or too strong. And most days, Theda just swallowed it down and didn’t react. But today… it was too much. Fancy picking on the poor little space-wolf cubs.

She calmed herself by watching Barky out in the space lane. There she was, up front, a space-wolf regimental sergeant major, with five fluff-ball cubs flouncing along behind her, nipping at each other’s heels. The sight of them, happy and healthy, made Theda’s heart give a joyful flip. She’d saved those adorable pups from a terrible fate at the hands of the most vicious Iskian space poacher and slaver she’d ever met, and she would never regret it.

***

The black emptiness of the space lane stretched away into the distance.  Haela – she liked to think of herself by her proper name, not the awful ‘Barky’ that humans called her – wondered how dead it really was. Kibe, the string of asteroids that was home to her pack family, thrilled with life. Haela had overheard Carla speak of space as an arid vacuum. Were the humans truly not aware of the thick soup that made up the universe? The space-greenery on even the smallest of asteroids? All the tasty little space-rabbits that ate up the space-greenery? Her mouth watered just thinking about them.

Humans were so limited. Haela had learnt how to understand human speech when she was tiny. Not just human, any vocal speech: it was something the pack leader taught every cub. But humans couldn’t understand mind speech. They couldn’t even hear each other. They could send their thoughts out: Haela occasionally listened in to them shouting their nonsense into the ether, but she’d never come across one who could receive any messages. It made her sad at the waste.

Space-wolves didn’t use vocals, there was no point. Sounds didn’t travel in space, but mind to mind, communication didn’t depend on an atmosphere. It didn’t matter how far apart people were, either. She could listen in to anything, anywhere, if she chose. Howls and yips from Kibe would sing in her head all day and most of the night if she let them. The pack leader continually sent messages out to her, begging her to find her way home. She returned them each time, assuring her she would get back, but how would she do that?

The pack leader had no idea, and neither did Haela.

A sudden movement caught her eye. ‘Torak! Stop that!’ She stopped her ruminations, whirled and snapped at her youngest cub. ‘Where do you think you’re going? What did I tell you? If I lose you out here, do you think I’ll have time to chase after you like last time? You’ll be lost forever, or maybe another slaver will come and take you. Would you like that? No. I didn’t think so. Now, take hold of Rune and keep up.’

 ‘You’re all running too fast!’ Torak wrinkled his black-tipped nose. ‘Why do I have to be at the end? Why can’t someone else stay back here? My legs are only short and he keeps pulling his tail out of my mouth.’ He clicked his teeth together round the fusty, rusty tuft of Rune’s tail.

‘Mum!’ Rune wailed. ‘He bit me! Leave me alone, Torak! Stop grabbing my tail!’

‘Be quiet! Rune, I told Torak to hold your tail, so stop whining. Torak, you’re my big boy and I rely on you to hold the end of the line. Don’t you want to help me get us safely to the pack on Kibe?’ 

Torak turned his head away from Haela. ‘You only call me your big boy when you want something.’

‘Enough!’ Haela crashed her teeth together, leaning into Torak’s insolent face. He flinched and backed away from her, dragging Rune with him. ‘I told you to be quiet. Why can’t you be like your sisters? They do as I ask them.’

Three pale grey girl cubs looked up, startled. Smoke, the tiniest of the litter, smirked at her brothers. ‘We’re always good, aren’t we, Mummy…’

Torak grimaced at his sister, his upper lip curling like a wisp of frozen gas.

***

‘Have you taken the Sprinter out yet?’ Theda asked. With luck, she thought, she might sidetrack Carla away from the cubs and their imperfect house-training.

‘No, I fancy going out later.’ Carla smiled and rubbed her hands together. ‘You want a go at her?’

Theda’s eyes widened. She hadn’t expected an olive branch that large. ‘May I? It would be wonderful to try it out before we sell it with the other contraband.’ 

Carla’s face clouded over, and Theda winced. She shouldn’t have called the ‘extra’ salvage contraband. 

She backed up. ‘Our additional commission stockpile, I mean.’ 

Carla looked down at her console. ‘It’s not even a stockpile. Just a minor difference between the items listed on the manifest and the actual stuff we took off as salvage. Anyway, I was thinking. Why don’t I take the Sprinter as my part of the profit?’

The Sprinter was worth far more than Carla’s share of the profit. If she believed Theda didn’t know that she was an imbecile.

‘I don’t mind either way,’ Theda lied. ‘We made a lot from that excursion. But there’s no hurry. Let’s keep the Sprinter as a company asset and we can decide later. It’s not like we’re going to be strapped for cash, is it?’

Carla looked slyly at Theda, from the corner of her eye. ‘Who knows?’ she said. ‘I’d have thought the money would come in handy to help pay the keep of the space-wolves out there.’ 

Not again! Every conversation came back to the space-wolves, and Carla’s ridiculous resentment of them. It made no sense. They were so charming, running up and down the corridors, chasing each other, then dropping to the floor in an exhausted huddle to snore away until Barky found them and herded them back to their quarters – an unused cupboard behind the galley. Theda had padded it out with a dilapidated blanket and the family seemed happy in there. But Carla thought they made the galley stink, and how could they cook in there if it stank of space-wolf? 

The space-wolves didn’t stink. They smelt doggy sometimes, but what was wrong with that? Carla should get a whiff of herself when she’d come back from the treadmill. And anyway, surely Carla could hold her nose on the rare occasion she got herself a coffee? 

But what was the point of arguing?

‘I guess,’ Theda said and turned back to watching the cubs roll and tumble. She frowned and leant forward to peer out into the black.

‘Carla…’ she said. ‘Barky took all the cubs out, didn’t she? All five of them?’

Carla didn’t look up from her console. ‘Does it matter?’

‘I’m not sure.’ Theda blinked quickly to clear her eyes and stared again at the skein of little wolves. ‘There’s only four out there…’

…continued in Part three…

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