Episode 1: Barky, the Space-Wolf

A Space Opera

In monthly episodes…

Theda watched the silver spinning disc through the porthole. She tossed her gleaming black hair over her shoulder. ‘It’s very shiny,’ she said, her blue eyes sparkling. She loved shiny things.

‘It’s a piece of space garbage, and it’s cluttering up the main shipping lane,’ said Carla, who didn’t. She frowned at Theda, her shaven skull furrowing as she drew her finely pencilled eyebrows together. ‘What are you getting on the screen?’

Theda peered at a bright green line circling the dark screen in front of her. ‘I can’t find any communication satellites showing up in the charts, so it’s not one of them. Do you think it’s a merchant spacecraft? Who might be in it?’

No reply from Carla.

Theda sighed. Four months the two of them had been out here in the black, and, initially, she had been so pleased to be with someone as strong as Carla. But it didn’t take long to wear off – about day two, after Carla refused to unscrew a ridiculously tight jar of coffee granules – and now the endless sulking was making it feel more like four years. Thankfully, there were only two more months left of their current assignment, working for the Federation insurance company. They had a licence to strip out deserted ships and arrange their disposal, keeping part of the proceeds as their fee. Theda viewed their business as filling an essential need: keeping the space lanes free of dangerous junk, ensuring the safety of legitimate shipping, whilst earning themselves a considerable sum. And sometimes no need to declare all the contraband they found.

Carla finally spoke. ‘It’s not answering our hails. So, it’s most likely empty. But it can’t stay where it is and we won’t know what it is until we look at it, will we? Put your foot down and stop blathering.’

Theda ignored the reprimand and pressed her lips together. Carla liked to think she was in charge and Theda liked a quiet life.

‘Will we need weapons?’ she asked.

Carla shook her head. ‘The blasters are still on charge, and stun-guns won’t do us any good if we get into a proper fight. Might as well take a chance on talking ourselves out of any tricky situations. Stop worrying. I’ll make sure we’re okay.’

Theda wasn’t totally happy, but it was easier to go with the flow: arguing gave her a headache. She pulled hard on the speed stick and the silver disk zoomed closer. With a click, she secured her helmet, checked the seals on her space suit, turned on the oxygen pump and prepared to launch a shuttle to check out the unknown vessel.

**

The small craft slid onto an empty docking turntable. Carla grunted her appreciation of Theda’s neat landing and unclipped her safety belt. ‘Turn us round in case we need to make a quick getaway,’ she said. As if Theda would have forgotten.

The shuttle doors opened and they stomped down the steps. Three turntables filled the dock: their own, a vacant space next to them, and an occupied end one with a high-tech, super-fast Sprint vessel. Someone wanted to have the means to get away quickly, and had the money to afford the best. Theda couldn’t drive one of the new, ultra-expensive craft, but Carla could. They smiled through their faceplates at each other, relishing the thought of the Sprint becoming a bonus payment.

Ahead, the outer door to the airlock opened as they approached, and they entered, their gravity boots clanging on the metal of the floor. Theda pressed a bright red button on the wall. The airlock closed behind them. The button turned green, the inner airlock door hissed open onto a large, empty space – perhaps a warehouse? – and a row of overhead lights came on.

Theda turned her oxygen pump off, unclipped her helmet, and recoiled in horror. ‘Ugh! Keep your hat on, Carla, and turn your air filters on. It’s a bit whiffy in here…’

**

The space-wolf opened her eyes, startled by the influx of light into the crate. She flinched and her back spasmed as it hit the bars of her prison. Although there were no shackles on her legs, there was only just enough space to sit down and she could only lie down by pulling her legs in tight to her nose. Her paws were slick with sweat and trails of drool had dripped from her mouth to dry in caked spikes in her ruff. She spent all her time worrying about her five cubs, taken from her after the slavers had caught them in their trawl nets and pulled them into this terrible place. Where were her cubs? She couldn’t sense them; were they dead? Or imprisoned as she was? Her stomach rumbled. She was so hungry. The slavers had given her food and water when they forced her into the crate, but now the water had a thin green scum on the surface and the food bowl only held a few dried crusts.

The stink in here was rich, filling her nostrils with all the wrong scents. There was nowhere for her to do her business; the crate had open bars on the floor that gave onto a shallow pit, and everything fell through to sit in rotting heaps below. She was used to a clean midden. Her thoughts drifted once more to her cubs – who was cleaning them? Did they have food and water? Where were they?

**

Theda looked for the source of the stench, but the warehouse was empty, the metal floor glittering in the overhead lights. An echoing scratch-scratch noise startled her, and she followed the direction of the sound until she discovered a large wooden crate behind a support strut in the corner.

‘Oh, Carla! Come see this! It’s a doggy… poor thing. Look at its legs. So scrawny!’

‘It has scrawny legs because it’s a bloody space-wolf.’ Carla pushed her away from the crate. ‘And it’s the reason the place stinks. We don’t have time for it right now; we need to check for crew and salvageables.’

‘You can’t just leave it here!’ Theda looked sideways at Carla. ‘I’ll look after it, I promise.’ She dropped her head and gazed up at Carla through her eyelashes. ‘Please? It won’t take long to get her loaded.’

‘You realise the space-wolf is the wildest of wild space animals? They are vicious, never to be trusted?’

Theda flickered her eyelashes again. ‘Please?’

‘Get it on board, then. But on your head be it; I’m not getting near it. And as for cleaning up after a bloody space-wolf?’ Carla shook her head and lifted one side of the crate, muttering under her breath. ‘Cleaning up after you is more than enough.’

Theda ignored the snide comment and picked up her end of the crate. She dropped it sharply as the space-wolf snapped at her fingers. ‘Oh! That was close! Can we drag the crate? It’ll be safer – it can’t turn round and bite us, there’s no room.’

She ran round to Carla’s side, keeping her distance from the slavering jaws. They pulled and slid the unwieldy crate towards their shuttle, the wolf whining and scrabbling at the bars, frantically trying to get out.

‘Don’t be frightened, Woofy,’ Theda crooned. ‘We’re not going to hurt you.’

‘Wolves don’t woof – they howl. At least, they do when they aren’t chewing you up and spitting you out. And hurry up,’ Carla snapped. ‘We don’t have all day. Let’s get your new pet loaded on and do what we came to do.’

‘Why? What’s the rush? There’s nobody here, is there?’

‘We haven’t seen anyone, but that doesn’t mean there’s nobody here. I don’t like it: this dock is far too tidy. I have a suspicion the crew is away right now, but they could come back any minute. If we are going to make off with their cargo, legitimate or not, we don’t want to be found here.’

‘Oh. True…’ Theda’s mouth shut with a snap. She stopped moving and let go of the crate.

‘What are you doing? What did I just say?’ Carla pulled on the crate. ‘Hurry up!’

‘No point…’ Theda said, inclining her head towards the open doors at the far end of the warehouse. A group of four men stood, legs apart and arms akimbo, sharply defined against the light in the corridor behind them. Three wore black suits, slightly too tight. Protection, Theda decided. Bulges under their armpits suggested they carried arms. The point man was tall but slender, dark-bearded, swarthy and dressed in a loose-fitting robe of expensive red silk shot with gold thread. An Iskian slaver, and an important one if he needed three bodyguards.

The slaver stepped briskly into the centre of the warehouse, followed by the guards, their steps echoing. He raised an eyebrow and grinned at Theda. ‘No indeed. Well spotted. To what do we owe the pleasure of your company, ladies?’

Carla scowled. ‘We are officially licenced salvage engineers here to check out your craft, which we found drifting in the shipping lanes. And now we’ve encountered this animal.’ She pointed at the space-wolf. ‘You realise it’s against Fed laws to hold endangered creatures in captivity? Your vessel isn’t salvage, and we’ll leave you to your lawful business, but the space-wolf comes with us.’ Carla sarcastically emphasised the word ‘lawful’. Theda agreed. These weren’t just the usual run of smugglers; these were slavers and Theda hated slavers with a passion. She wished they’d brought their own weapons. Even a lightweight stun-gun would have been better than nothing.

Carla flicked her little finger, their signal to depart. Theda moved back to the end of the wolf crate and took a firm grip, ready to pull it the final few yards to their shuttle. A nub of metal caught on her thumb – the crate door catch. She edged it open, holding the door closed with her foot.

The leader pointed at the crate. ‘Barky is not wild; she is the ship’s mascot. She had pups recently, and she’s been anxious so we popped her in the crate to calm down. Once she settles, she’ll return to being our pet. She is not yours to take, and I don’t believe you would want to cross me, in this? Would you?’

Theda waited to see what Carla would do next – she despised people who made idle threats, and Theda had seen her face off worse men than this.

‘Where are the cubs? They need to be with their mother so we’ll take them as well.’ Carla continued as if the slaver hadn’t said a word.

He snorted and glanced over his shoulder at his henchmen, who flicked back their jacket fronts to reveal short-barrelled guns which they pulled and aimed at Carla. ‘What makes you think you’ll stay alive long enough to do that?’ The leader pulled a delicately chased silver handgun from a hidden pocket and used it to beckon Theda to walk towards him. Theda ignored the gesture and backed slowly away from him, leaving the crate unattended in the middle of the warehouse.

**

Barky – not my name, the space-wolf thought, my mother called me Haela – hated the man with the beard. He had taken her cubs and now she didn’t know if they were dying of starvation, or from lack of grooming. She growled softly and licked her teeth. If she ever got out of this prison, that man would regret everything he had done to her and her cubs.

She snuffed the air, taking in the women’s scents. They did not smell aggressive, unlike the bearded man. Haela suspected they were not here to take her away from her cubs, as she had first thought. Were they here to rescue her? No human had wanted to rescue a space-wolf before. She had watched the rest of her pack picked off one by one, taken by Iskian slavers. Stories circulated around the packs of body parts being sold throughout the galaxy, and whilst the pack elders had warned them all to be on their guard, the slavers had been relentless. There were tales of the Xorka in the Crab Nebula who wore wolf pelts as proof they had passed their adulthood rituals. Shutharan females who treasured wolf canine teeth to wear over their own. But slavers got the most money from the Braan who fed wolf cubs to their females to encourage their decreasing fertility.

She was sure that was where they were heading. Through the airlock windows, she could see the oval light of Andromeda in the distance, home of the Braan. She edged forward painfully to peer sideways, searching for the nearest star to gauge where they were, how far she was from home.

The tip of her nose touched the bars of the crate door, and it tilted away from her, silently opening.

**

The slaver walked towards Theda, followed by his gun-toting heavies. She wasn’t frightened – she was never scared; Carla had taught her how to batten those panics down inside, keeping her mind free to think – but she wasn’t encouraged by their plight. All their hopes might pin on the space-wolf finding the opened crate door, and deciding to wreak revenge on her captors. She refused to think about what might happen if the space-wolf attacked her or Carla instead.

‘Why is the space-wolf important to you, anyway? Surely there is better smuggling to be had? You’re only a parsec from the mines on Leonis. Wouldn’t they be more profitable than a single space-wolf, even if she has cubs?’ Theda asked.

The closest of the heavies snorted his derision, but the Iskian frowned him down.

‘More profitable, uncertain. More dangerous, definitely. Besides, don’t you know how valuable space-wolf pups are?’ He continued to stride towards her, closing in until she could smell his breath. He’d been eating garlic. Theda sniffed appreciatively. How delicious – she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had food made with any kind of Earth herb. When they got back to their own craft, she’d persuade Carla to stop at the intergalactic market near Rigel, and she’d get tomatoes and garlic and basilica and…

‘Well, do you?’ Garlic-breath looked down at her and grinned.

‘No.’ She fluttered her eyelashes, wide-eyed, and made her voice artificially breathy, full of fear, yet packed with excitement at the same time.

The Iskian smirked, foolishly self-confident. His heavies moved into position behind him. Theda watched them string out, like Orion’s belt. They seemed to have forgotten Carla who was behind them now, out of their sight line.

Theda flinched, startled, as something pressed against the side of her knee. The space-wolf had padded up to stand next to her, leaning on her legs, jaws dripping with saliva, her growl a softly voiced threat. She had looked weak in the crate, but now she looked anything but. This time, it was the Iskian’s turn to look wide-eyed. He stepped backwards, cannoning into the heavies, knocking them into each other like skittles.

Theda let her hand drop to the thickly furred ruff around the space-wolf’s neck, scratched and felt the wolf wriggle with pleasure. Carla stepped forward, placed a booted foot on the closest of the heavies and stooped to pick up a spinning gun, dropped by another. The last bodyguard lay still, unconscious, squashed between the other two like the filling in a sandwich.

‘Stay down, all of you, please,’ Carla said, surprisingly polite, considering the circumstances. ‘Pups. You were going to tell me about pups.’

**

Haela pushed hard against the human’s legs. She smelled nice, even if her voice was squeaky.

Squeaky hunkered down and scratched Haela in the perfect itchy place under her chin. ‘Shall we look for your pups, Barky?’ she asked.

Scratching was for dogs, not wolves. They were cubs, not pups, and her name was Haela, but there was no reason not to forgive this person. Haela lifted her head and sniffed. There it was, faint yet clear as a bell, the scent of her cubs. She lifted her head further and howled a single long note. In the distance, five little voices returned the call. She tugged insistently at the squeaky person’s sleeve and whined softly.

‘Okay, Barky, show me where you want to go,’ Squeaky said and Haela led her past the slavers on their way to the ship brig. They would soon learn what it felt like to be in a crate, with no nice, clean midden. Perhaps they’d enjoy the remnants of her scummy water…

But it was no longer her concern. She would find her cubs and all of them would soon be freewheeling through space again.

Haela couldn’t wait.

…continued in part two…

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