Episode 3: Barky, the Space-Wolf

Space-wolves rarely lose their cool, but Haela was sliding uncharacteristically close to panic. She lifted her head, frantically scanning the black emptiness of the space shipping lane for her youngest cub’s distinctive oval body, tipped with black at tail and nose. Calm, she told herself. He is somewhere close by, hiding, sulking because she’d told him off.

‘Cubs? Have you seen Torak?’ she asked.

Four heads turned towards her, eyes wide. Rune frowned. ‘He was biting my tail. Where is he now? Has he run away?’

Smoke giggled. ‘You’d love it if he ran away, wouldn’t you, Rune?’

Haela lowered her nose and held Smoke’s innocent grey eyes until they sheepishly looked away.

‘Did you see him?’ The cub shook her head. ‘Well then, don’t be nasty to Rune. Where do you think he’s gone? Let’s search for him. What about those asteroids? Do you think he could be over there?’

The cubs scooted away towards the rocks Haela had pointed out, pushing each other and laughing. She scanned the lane once more. No sign.

‘Torak! Come on. Enough of this game. Where are you?’ Her voice sounded loud in her head. He must have heard her. Why didn’t he reply?

‘Nothing here,’ called Floss, the eldest and arguably the most sensible of the litter. ‘Rune! Stop doing that!’

Rune’s whine overlaid Floss’s voice in Haela’s mind. ‘Don’t tell me what to do, Floss! Mum! Tell her!’

Haela ignored him. ‘Any sign at all, Floss?’ There were so many places there Torak could be hiding. The cubs were investigating, sniffing and scrabbling, and she hoped they’d found some trace to give her an idea of where Torak had gone.

‘Nothing,’ Floss replied. ‘But Smoke has found space-bunnies.’

Haela pulled the four cubs tightly into her side. ‘Remember the danger rules,’ she told them. ‘Always do exactly as I tell you. Do not let go of each other. If I’m not there, report your position to me regularly.’

Torak was doing none of these things. But he’d been right there, hanging onto Rune’s tail, only a moment before. ‘Rune, did you pull your tail away? Did you let Torak spin away from you?’

‘I didn’t!’ Rune wailed. ‘He was holding on, and then he wasn’t. I didn’t do anything…’

‘Hush, Rune. I’m not blaming you for anything.’

‘You always blame me, even when it’s his fault.’ Rune’s sullen mutter faded away as Smoke nestled into her side, rubbing her cheek against Haela’s front leg.

‘Mummy…’ Smoke nipped at Haela’s paw.

How on earth could she think with these cubs perpetually nagging at her?

‘What is it this time?’

‘Mummy… look over there.’ Smoke lifted her nose. ‘What’s that thing?’

Haela followed the line of Smoke’s pointed muzzle. In the distance, rapidly opening out, was a white whirlpool, like a funnel without a base. In the whirlpool’s belly sat a globular craft, like a giant spider waiting in its web.

‘Mum! What’s happening?’ Torak wailed in her head, his voice frantic, beating against the bones of her skull. ‘I was with you one moment, and then I wasn’t and you were all gone.’

‘Hold on, dear! Can you see me?’ Haela raised her hackles, fluffing out her coat to make herself as visible as possible. ‘Are you inside the wormhole?’

‘I don’t know! I can’t see anything.’

The round craft. Could he be in there? And was it coming in from the wormhole, or going out? She couldn’t tell, but either way, she had to hurry.

Haela tensed her back legs under her belly to launch across the space lane towards the foreign craft. But before she could free the gathered energy, a blue plume of exhaust gas trailed from the mouth of the funnel. The space craft had reversed away, and she watched, horrified, as the wormhole winked at her and disappeared, closed.

‘Torak?’ Haela called. But all she heard was the faint echo of her call, bouncing back from the edges of the void.

‘Back to the craft, and quickly. Stay attached to each other. DO NOT let go.’ She gripped the first of the cubs in line and sped them back to safety.

***

Theda was watching the space-wolves, the four cubs strung out like weights on a fishing line, cavorting in the space lane.

‘Come here,’ Carla called, pointing at her screen. It showed the view from one of the craft’s external thermal cameras, a confusing mix of vibrant colours. ‘I’ve found something odd. Look; see that orange streak? That’s residual heat from a spacecraft’s thrusters.’

Theda sighed. Now she’d have to pretend heat signatures were interesting. Still, Carla was talking to her again, which made a change from the sniffs and sneers of the last few weeks. She turned reluctantly away from the space-wolves and crossed the bridge to stand next to Carla.

Carla slowed the image to half speed. ‘The streak appears from nowhere, then suddenly, poof, it’s gone. Now, if I switch over to night-vision, look what the thermal camera isn’t picking up.’

The screen changed to monochromatic greys and whites, and Carla backed the recording to the beginning. In the top corner, a white whirlpool appeared. A spherical craft appeared in the central funnel, stopped still for a moment, then backed away as quickly as it had arrived. The funnel collapsed in on itself and the whirlpool disappeared.

‘And there’s more. Check the timestamp when the craft first appeared. See? It came into view on the night camera at 1258 on the counter, and it was gone by 1270.’ Carla sounded smug. The various cameras – thermal, night vision and gamma – scattered around the outside of the salvage craft were part of the ‘extras’ found on the Iskian slaver that hadn’t made it onto the salvage manifesto for the insurance company. Carla had spent hours attaching them to the hull. She flicked another switch, and the console reverted to the brightly coloured thermal screen.

Theda leant forward. ‘Go back,’ she said.

Carla rewound until Theda tapped her on the shoulder. ‘Start again from here…’

Five round red blobs and a larger red oval, Barky and her pups. As she watched, the end one fell back, then at 1260, it jerked rapidly towards the foreign craft.

‘Stop! They’re pulling it in!’

‘Pulling in what?’

‘The last cub. Look!’

Theda watched the cub speed towards the whirlpool at the upper corner of the screen, and then, at 1265 on the counter, disappear completely. The orange flare of the thrusters flashed onto the screen, and by 1270, just as Carla had said, it was gone.

And one of Barky’s cubs with it.

***

Haela skidded onto the deck of the landing bay, her cubs crashing in an untidy pile behind her. Four. Not five as it ought to be, and the thought of her lost cub made her feel sick. The way Torak had abruptly stopped wailing in her head made her nausea worse. She should have still been able to hear him. Distance wasn’t a thing, so was he hurt? Dead?

‘Are we going after Torak, Mummy?’ Smoke asked, her voice barely a whisper.

‘He’s very annoying, but he’s still our brother. Are we going right now?’ Rune asked, anxiously pawing at Haela’s face.

The cubs clustered round her, pressing tightly between her front legs. They were being very brave, but Haela could sense each one’s underlying relief that the missing cub had been someone else, not them. ‘Not yet. I want to check if the huma

ns saw what happened. I’m going up to the bridge to listen to them. Floss, take everyone to the den and wait for me. I shouldn’t be long.’

The cubs turned and trailed away down the corridor, their heads down, disconsolately gripping each other’s tail. Haela watched the snaking procession until they were out of sight, then took the other door and headed out towards the front of the ship. She stopped outside the open door to the bridge and listened to the two humans’ conversation.

Theda was bent forward, looking at a screen. That poor little cub. Where’s he gone?

How nice, Haela thought to herself, as she listened in to the words the girl hadn’t said aloud. She’s worried about Torak.

The other girl, Carla, shook her head. ‘I hadn’t noticed the cub.’ Moron. Why would I care about a space-wolf?

Haela suppressed a desire to growl at the Carla girl. She edged back, keeping her body behind the door-frame, her muzzle below the humans’ eyeline.

The screen glowed in the grey half-light on the bridge, casting eerie shadows up onto Carla’s face. ‘Now, that’s interesting,’ Carla muttered to herself.

‘What is?’ Theda asked. She nudged Carla none-too-gently in the ribs.

Carla looked up, startled, and rubbed her side. What did she do that for? Clumsy brat. She turned back to the console and pointed at a flag on the side of the strange craft. ‘Does that insignia look familiar to you?’

Theda leant in further. ‘Is that a Braan flag?’

Carla nodded. ‘Yes. I’m now wondering if the Iskian had a contract with the Braan. If they’ve already paid upfront for something, you watch. They’ll be back.’

Haela held back a whine, holding her paws tightly over her nose. The Braan couldn’t come here: they would feed her cubs to their females and strip her own pelt as a souvenir.

‘Well, that will suit you, won’t it, if they come back?’ Theda said. Bet you don’t even remember what the Iskian was saying about the Braan and their thirst for space-wolf cubs. They’ll pick up the other cubs, so no doggy smells, no lines of poop. You’d love that.

‘What?’ Carla turned her head to stare at Theda. What is she talking about? She spouts such rubbish all the time. Why would I want the Braan here, stealing our ship?

‘When the Braan take the rest of the pups. You’ll be pleased to be rid of them.’

Carla stood up, pushing away from the console. ‘Who’s talking about the cubs? If the Braan come back, they’ll be coming for the Sprinter. Get your things; I want to see if they’ve left any clues.’

Theda looked up, her brows tightly drawn together. ‘Surely, we’re not taking the Sprinter, are we? What if the Braan come back?’ She’s so idiotic.

Carla’s eyes narrowed. ‘Safer with me inside it than sitting out there empty, waiting to be snatched.’

Theda stared back for a moment, then gave a curt upward nod and moved away from the console towards the door. ‘After you,’ she said.

Haela slid back down the corridor wall to let the girls go past. Theda stopped and pushed her fingers into Haela’s ruff. ‘Hello, Barky!’ she said. ‘What are you doing here?’

Haela let her nose slide down onto her front paws, and looked up at Theda, whining gently. Take me with you. She sent her thought urgently to the girl’s mind. I need to go with you; I need to find Torak.

‘Aw!’ Theda said. ‘Look at you, all hunkered down. Now, I can’t pet you, I’m busy, so you be a good girl. Stay here and look after your poor little pups. We won’t be long.’

Carla called back over her shoulder. ‘Hurry yourself! If the Braan get hold of my Sprinter, I’ll make you suffer for it.’

Theda raised an eyebrow.

Your Sprinter? I don’t think so, Carla.

Haela watched the two girls scurry along the corridor towards the Sprinter. What were they going to look at? Haela curled her lip. Humans. They had such short attention spans. Still, there was no time to get irritated; that would wait until later.

Right now, she had to be on that Sprinter.

continued in part four…

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