Episode 4: Barky the Space-wolf – Onward

Theda and Carla stomped down the corridor, arguing as they went. Haela slunk into the shadows and followed.

‘Floss,’ she sent to her eldest cub, ‘I’m going outside for a while. Keep everyone safe and happy, will you, please?’

Floss gave a short, distracted squeak in reply; it sounded as if she already had her work cut out for her. Well, she would do her best, and the responsibility was good for her. It would teach her leadership.

Haela stopped thinking about the safe cubs and moved her mental focus to Torak, who was not safe at all. She needed to send him another message shortly. Maybe this one would get through.

Theda opened the door to the landing bay, and Carla pushed through in front of her.

‘… I don’t see what you are so worried about.’ Carla called back over her shoulder to Theda. ‘It’s not as if I’m going to disappear with the Sprinter, is it? Where would I go? You could still have use of it – once you learn how to drive it – even when it is my property.’ Her thoughts spilled out into Haela’s mind. Come on, Theda. What more do you want me to offer you? There must be something you want. Bite on the bait.

Theda followed through, silent. She can talk about it all she likes. I won’t give her the pleasure of a reply.

Haela rolled her eyes at the teenage idiocy of the women’s thoughts. She slid through the door before it closed and scuttled sideways towards the Sprinter, which sat near the main exit doors. She slipped onto one of the base rails that ran around the base of the craft and gripped the retainer rope with her teeth, twisting it around her body for security. A deep breath, and she settled in to wait.

Theda climbed nimbly up the short ladder to the main entryway and dropped herself feet first into the passenger seat. Carla followed on the other side, still griping, still pushing at Theda that the Sprinter should be hers. She slid into the driver’s seat and the doors slid shut. Haela listened to the various knocks and thuds coming out of the cockpit.

‘Vacuum to pressure. Suits and helmets engaged.’ Carla called out. Theda had still not said a single word.

Haela closed down her ear flaps as she felt the first thrum of the Sprinter engines. The vibration ran through her legs, into her stomach, and she felt as if her guts were being turned inside out. Hurry up, she thought. Get out into space. Get this thing going.

***

‘What if I turn over the main craft to you?’ Carla was still wittering on about the Sprinter. ‘Would that be sufficient? Your half of the salvage from the Iskian, plus the main craft, and I have the Sprinter clean and legally mine? Would that suit? You can’t see that as depriving you of your rightful share, can you?’

Theda reached up and checked the instrument panel above her head. She flipped over a bank of switches.

‘Ready. All green,’ she said, and turned off her helmet speakers.

Carla flipped her own switches. Theda could see Carla’s mouth still moving, but, thank everything that breathed, she couldn’t hear her any longer. She braced herself for the forward momentum of the Sprinter and gritted her teeth against the pressure inside the cockpit. The landing bay doors opened, and the Sprinter erupted into space. The pressure and the violence of the engine sound dropped immediately and Theda could think again.

This latest offer was better than the previous ones. The salvage craft still needed a lot of work done to bring it up to the latest spec, although they had extended and refitted the main deck. The Iskian slaver head-bounty had paid for that. It had left the rest of the ship looking very shabby, which was a major problem. Theda’s half share of the salvage commissions wouldn’t pay for a full upgrade, but if she got all of it, that might do it. And then, if the Braan got hold of the Sprinter… Well, it would change everything. If Theda went for the swap, got the paperwork registered quickly, and the Braan won the battle – and there was bound to be a battle – she wouldn’t be losing anything. She’d have it all, and Carla would have nothing.

So, the question was, how blinkered was Carla? How much had she thought about these other sides to the coin? Could Theda push for even more if Carla was so enamoured of the Sprinter?

This felt like playing poker.

***

Haela couldn’t believe the two women were still wrangling about who would get what when Torak was in so much danger. She blocked their mental leakage and settled to listening out for her cub.

‘Torak!’ she called into the void. ‘Can you hear me?’

Nothing. Just the whistle of the space wind.

Then, suddenly, in the midst of the echoing silence, a faint howl.

‘Torak!’ she called again.

‘Hush,’ It was Torak, very faint, almost inaudible. And obviously terrified. ‘They can hear us. They’re listening all the time. So shhh.’

‘Can you keep howling? Just a little?’

Torak was quiet for a moment, then howled again. The tiniest whisper of a howl.

‘Pack!’ Haela called. ‘Pack! I need you!’

No reply. Why wasn’t Pack Leader replying?

‘Pack!’ she called again, insistent. But nothing. How could she work out Torak’s position without the rest of the pack? If only the women in the Sprinter would hear him, she’d ask them to help.

***

Theda frowned. ‘Did you hear that?’ she asked Carla.

‘Hear what?’ Carla glanced up, then returned to studying the screen in front of her. ‘I can’t see any residue of a wormhole, but there was definitely one there. We’ll have to wait for it to come back.’

‘What if it doesn’t come back? We can’t just sit here forever. And the howling noise, like a whistling wind but a long way away; are you sure you can’t hear it?’

‘Why are you always so stupid?’ Carla sneered. ‘One, they are obviously after the Sprinter. So they’ll be back. And we need to be here to intercept them. Two, there isn’t a noise. Inside here, we’re under vacuum, so we can’t hear anything outside what we say inside our helmets. And outside it’s space. There’s nothing to hear in space.’

‘How can I hear something, then?’ Theda asked, ‘Do you think it’s coming from the residue of the worm-hole?’

‘I doubt it. Can you get a fix on it?’

Theda fiddled with her panel of instruments and then shook her head. ‘No. It might be something inside my head. But it feels like it’s outside.’

She unstrapped herself, floating free in the tight confines of the cockpit, the vacuum suit closing round her as she rose. ‘I’m going out. See if it feels different outside the Sprinter.’ She clipped a line to her waist and opened the gull-wing door on her side of the craft.

Theda slid out into the dark-grey emptiness of the space void, choking back her nausea as she floated free for a moment. No matter how many times she ventured outside, she could never shake the premonition that something would pierce her vacuum suit and she’d jet out along the space lane, silently screaming. She fed out the safety cable from her waist, attaching the magnetic clip to the hull with a satisfying clunk. The howling in her head stopped, and she breathed a sigh of relief. ‘I think it’s gone…’ she said, but stopped as the howling started again, very faint. A tiny sound that circled in her head like a leaf lifted on a breeze.

She swivelled her body round to pull herself along the landing rail under the Sprinter until she could see clearly out into the space lane, searching for something, anything, that might be transmitting the noise. Her eyes snagged on a dark lump clinging to the rail and she squinted along the underbody of the craft, trying to bring it better into focus.

‘Barky?’ What was Barky doing out here? They had left her in the corridor, surely? ‘Barky, is that you?’ Which was a stupid thing to say. How would Barky hear her, anyway?

But Barky turned round and zipped toward her, grinning, her tongue lolling out of one side of her mouth. The space-wolf tapped her with one paw in passing and carried on out into open space. She turned to face Theda and flicked her ears.

What did she want?

Barky flicked her ears again, and Theda heard another sound join the faint howling in her head. A series of yips, similar to those Barky made when she wanted Theda to follow her to the galley. Did she want food? Or attention? Out here?

The yips took on a note of exasperation. Oh, Barky, I don’t know what your yips mean, Theda thought to herself. I wish there was a space lingua-franca we could use.

Barky stood still for a moment, and the yips changed into a frenzied garbled hissing, rather like re-tuning a radio. The hissing settled, and a voice sounded in Theda’s mind. ‘Space talk? Like this?’ Theda’s eyes widened. Was Barky talking to her?

‘You are too loud. It’s dangerous. Think quietly.’ The words sounded alien in her head, as if she were listening through an auto-translator in her ear. Strangely, they also left a metallic taste at the back of her throat.

‘Who is speaking?’ she whispered.

‘No need to speak,’ the voice continued. ‘Thinking is good. But please think quietly.’

Was it Barky? Theda couldn’t get her head round this. Barky was just a dog, and dogs don’t talk.

Barky showed her teeth. ‘Now is not the time. And Haela is not a dog.’ The word dog tasted like rotten meat.

***

At last! Haela couldn’t believe it. Theda was opening up and listening. The first human she’d ever known who was open to hearing space-wolf thoughts. The only problem was… it was Theda, and she didn’t have time to train up a human who wasn’t even as bright as her most stupid cubs. One who thought space-wolves were dogs.

She shook her head. Thank goodness the human didn’t seem able to hear her thoughts. And this was not the time to think about how stupid humans were. She had to work with what she had and get a fix on Torak.

‘Can you hear Torak howling? I think you can or you wouldn’t be out here. He is on the Braan ship and needs our help. We must find him.’

Theda looked pensive. ‘Carla might be a problem.’ she sent the thought across to Haela. ‘She doesn’t like space-wolf cubs and won’t want to go wandering off in search of Torak.’

‘Find a way! It’s urgent. This is the Braan. You know they will eat him if we take too long.’

Theda shuddered. ‘Yes. I know. I’ll persuade Carla somehow. Attach yourself back to the rail, in case we move suddenly.’ Theda moved along the side of the craft, unclipped her safety line and pulled herself back up to the entryway, swinging her legs round to slide back in to her seat.

Haela zipped back to the under rail and wound the docking rope back round her waist.

Come on, Theda.

Make this work.


Continued in episode 5: How dark is your Wormhole?

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