Barghest Chapter 8

Hour 0700, Day 008, Year 2122

Eighteenth anniversary of the Frontera Colony Massacre. Twenty-seven thousand, eight hundred, sixty-three human colonists and border patrol soldiers were killed by a surprise Culler attack. There were nine survivors.

Malak handed his second MRE bar over to Ondrea and let his mind wander while he watched her eat. It was test day. Figuratively speaking, it was always test day for research subjects like him. He and the rest of his pack had been watched by cameras, scientists, guards, and untold number of medical devices since before their birth. Decanting, he dryly reminded himself. That was what some of the less respectful technicians called it. Dr. Gillian referred to it as ‘birth’, even though it wasn’t really, when she spoke to the subjects. When she wrote in her notes it was ‘extraction’. Bee, in the growling language that came easiest to him, called it ‘waking’. As strange as most of the natural humans found Bee’s ideas, Malak had to admit that his Basics instructor – the only test subject to hold that status – came up with the best name.

Since his Wakingday, which he shared with the rest of his pack – except Taisto, who always seemed to be late – he had gone through twenty-five test days. That I can remember, he clarified to himself. Malak always tried to be precise, even in his own mind. This day was number twenty-six, and it had the most pressure riding on it. Or perhaps he was simply old enough to understand how important the tests were to the future of his pack. A test meant changes, depending on how individuals and the group did. Sometimes it was different MREs – more protein, less protein, more fats, less iron. Sometimes it was colder quarters, or hotter classrooms, or longer training sessions. Once they had received an art instructor, who stayed for over a year, then was inexplicably removed. Wojciech still drew, sometimes, on their study tablets, before erasing his work.

Ondrea finished the meal bar and grinned her thanks before walking back to the table she shared with Taisto and Wojciech. The three laughed and jostled each other while they finished their water. Malak would have been welcome to join them, he knew. Welcome to join any of the other four tables where his pack was finishing their breakfast, but he didn’t. There was too much on his mind. Test Day.

They weren’t supposed to know the parameters or objectives prior to tests, not unless Dr. Gillian or one of the other senior scientists explicitly told them. But there were a few individuals in Malak’s group that were very, very good at keeping their ears and eyes open. On this day, Malak’s pack, Series 27-2, were going to be introduced to the rest of the twenty-sevens. Groups one, three, and four were going to join them for a day-long training exercise. Ostensibly, it was a group training exercise based around cooperative learning. Which was true, Malak knew. He also knew that it had a much more important purpose. Malak had shared his suspicions with Bee, who agreed that it was likely. Dr. Gillian wanted to find the Alpha.

Not an alpha, lower case a, Malak thought. The Alpha. Malak was the leader in his group. His pack had followed his orders since before he could remember – although there had been a brief week where the twins tried to take control. The whole pack went without test rewards for three days before the two females stepped down and submitted to Malak. It had all been fairly painless, although mildly humiliating for the twins.  It wasn’t always that way, though. Bee had told him how the twenty-sixes selected their alphas. Three of the four groups had bloody fights. No one died, but it had been a near thing in one case. Malak wasn’t sure how the other alphas would react to taking commands from him – but it wouldn’t matter.

The outcome would be the same. Malak was going to be the Alpha, because he didn’t know those other twenty-sevens. He couldn’t guarantee that they would watch out for his pack like he did. It would be more responsibility, three times more. Instead of twenty-five he would be in charge of one hundred. One hundred research subjects that frightened their scientists as often as they pleased them. One hundred soldiers, Malak reminded himself.

That was the point, really. They had been grown – decanted – to be soldiers for the natural humans. He understood. In the six years since his Wakingday, he had learned a great deal about natural humans and the war they were fighting. The Cullers were his enemy, and his purpose in life was to protect the natural humans from them. To kill Cullers. Malak knew he could do that. He was stronger than anyone else in his group except Jiral. He was quicker than everyone except Smierc. He was just as smart as Parshav and Rhadamanthus, although Taisto was better than everyone at puzzles. Four more years and he would go on live training missions. Four years after that, he would go up against the Cullers in real missions. That was what he was made for, and Malek knew he would be good at it. He also had another purpose, though, one which was more than just a lesson learned or something bred into him. He needed to protect his pack. To do that, he had to be the Alpha.

Smierc smoothly slid onto the bench opposite him, her water cup in hand but empty. She held it up to her mouth – a proven method for making certain the cameras couldn’t track the movements of her lips. “Parshav just gave the signal. Lupe is on the way with Gillian.”

“Hn.” Malak turned his cup between his palms. His stomach felt unsettled, like he hadn’t eaten, or maybe like what he had eaten hadn’t been quite dead.

Smierc ran her fingers through her shoulder-length red hair and pulled an elastic from around her wrist. “You good?” She asked while she made a quick ponytail.

“Hn,” he nodded, despite the itchy feeling growing in his legs and hands. Smierc snorted, rolling her eyes, clearly not believing him. Malak breathed deeply and tried to find a calm spot in his mind. That is what he needed – to be in control of himself. Then he could control others. He could smell the familiar scent of his beta, a mellow sort of orange in his nose that mixed with the standard issue soap they all used. The mess hall smelled like disinfectant and the dry, nutty-oat flavor of the MRE bars. Jiral smelled like rotten leaves and sweat – which was probably because he had been last in the night before so had early morning duty cleaning one of the training arenas. It was all familiar.

Smierc picked up her cup again. “You’ll be fine,” she assured him. “We all will. And if those others don’t submit-” Smierc set down her cup and bared her teeth at Malak. The expression made his adrenaline begin to flow. “We’ll make ‘em.”

“Hn.” He offered her a nod and a small smile. Smierc was second, behind him, for a reason. She was absolutely loyal, positive, and quick to protect the pack. He hoped the other groups would have some like her.

The doors to the mess hall slid open with a whisper of air pressure. “Good morning, everyone,” called Dr. Gillian. Half of her face was wrinkled with age. The other half was scarred smooth from an old accident and subsequent surgeries. She had once told the pack it was her good side. “I hope you have all finished breakfast.”

Lupe grinned and waggled her eyebrows. The younger scientist was always joking with the pack. “It’s the most important meal of the day,” she sing-songed to several smiles and chuckles.

Test day, Malak thought again and rose to lead his group out.

***

“That’s the last of them,” Lupe announced, selecting a video feed from her tablet and throwing it onto the wall with four others. “27-2 is in position. One, Three, and Four are ready to go whenever you want to start, Dr. Gillian.”

Gillian stood a little straighter, ignoring the chair that some well-meaning and unintentionally condescending research assistant had placed behind her. She had banked a great deal on the results of today’s exercises. Almost seven years ago, she had assured Representative Avani Sudarshan that the twenty-seven series would be the answer to Department of Defense’s problems. She had lied through her teeth and promised that they would have no trouble commanding the twenty-sixes and going into battle at age fourteen. Fourteen, for god’s sake, she chastised herself, not for the first or last time. It was a brutal schedule, a brutal childhood. But they aren’t really children, are they? Not technically. Although the Sol Constitution had been amended in 2120 to give citizenship rights to Genetically Modified Humans, it was debatable whether the subjects of the Hellhound project would meet the rather vague interpretation of ‘human’. In addition, they had been created far outside of the Sol system and the legal reach of Congress.

Equal rights aside, the twenty-sevens hardly looked like average children. At six, they appeared eleven or twelve. By the time they would be ready to march off to war, they would be physically and mentally in their early twenties even though chronologically they should only be in junior high school. Gillian glanced at the video wall and picked out the alphas for each group. Skoll led 27-1, his gangly arms and legs causing him to tower over those around him. He was strong, and bigger than the others, and quick to make decisions. Malak stood quietly with Smierc at his side. She barked orders at the others in 27-2, while he nodded and spoke in a low voice. Malak was serious, highly intelligent. He was smaller than Skoll or even Smierc, but he hadn’t hit the age six growth spurt yet.  Giltine stood at the front of an organized formation of 27-3. Her brown hair was braided tightly and her body purposefully relaxed. She was the only female alpha, and her group followed her commands like a well-oiled machine. Gillian was aware that she was the first choice of the military advisor that had been assigned to the Hellhound Project. She was the perfect example of a soldier, following orders to the letter and keeping her subordinates toeing the line. In group four, Almaut knelt in the center of a tight knot of bodies.  His pale hair and skin stood out sharply among the more common reds and browns of the subjects.  He was clever, sometimes to the dismay of those in charge of his group, and imaginative in his solutions to test situations. Any of the four would be excellent Alphas for the series.

If they are capable of it, she thought worriedly. Gillian didn’t allow her concern to show on her face. But the capacity of her research subjects – these children – was the crux of the matter. The twenty-six series had been saved from destruction because Dr. Wendy Gillian had promised the Oversight Committee that the next series would be able to control them. If one of the four alphas on the screen couldn’t lead their own series, there was little hope the twenty-sixes would listen. If that couldn’t be accomplished, then they would be of no use to the military. Trillions of credits spent on a project that did not produce results made for some very angry Congressional Representatives. It made for a whole lot of unemployed scientists.

It makes for several hundred dead test subjects.

Gillian forced those thoughts aside and glanced at the center screen. A flag was placed in the middle of an open field. The subjects need to get the flag, but it would take all four groups, working together, to get past the obstacles in their way. They would need one leader.

“Give me the mic,” she said calmly, holding out her hand to Lupe. Her former research assistant handed over the slender mic and reached forward to press the transmit command. “Good morning, twenty-sevens,” Gillian spoke and heads on the screens stopped and listened to the receivers they each wore just behind their ears. “Today, you must capture the flag…”

***

“That was a good catch,” Almaut said admiringly. “I didn’t see the looping patrol, without your advice we would have walked right into it.”  Malak nodded in acceptance and tried not to shift his weight. Fidgeting was a sign of weakness, and in his case it would reveal actual weakness. He had twisted his knee during the exercise, and the joint was already starting to swell. He flexed his jaw and ignored the pain.

“Not so impressive,” the female alpha, from group three, narrowed her eyes at him. Malak had immediately pegged her as his biggest competition for Alpha. “My scout saw it, we could have gotten through easily.”

“Yes, yes,” Almaut chuckled, “and then what would you have done if the Ones weren’t ready to back you up? An odd number in your group makes it difficult to do a tandem crossing, right? You’d still be on the other side of the ravine.”

“I’m sure Giltine would have figured it out,” said Skoll. The taller male was attempting to fold his shirt back together, with no luck. The garment had been completely shredded when he pushed one of his own pack members out of the path of a drone. Malak had been impressed. Skoll was willing to take serious injury to protect another. He was a good leader. And a bit of a peacemaker. “No need to dwell on it. We won, with no serious injuries, and everybody gets rewards tonight, so good day, right?”

“Good day?” Giltine bit off. “You won’t be saying that when they don’t pick you. I for one won’t follow-” Malak rubbed the back of his head, and from across the gathering space Smierc, ever watchful, gave a signal. Parshav suddenly tumbled into the female alpha’s back, cutting her off.

“What? Oh, so sorry!” He stood and tried to help her out, brushing at her clothes and loudly apologizing. Giltine backed away from him, irritated, and ran into Malak. He quickly leaned forward, letting the disarray of her braid hide his mouth.

“There are two cameras watching us right now. They’ll know whatever you say, so cover your mouth when you talk.”  The others heard him, and both Almaut and Skoll stared wide-eyed as Giltine spun around and faced him. She looked mad enough to spit nails, but instead of speaking, she pulled the elastic out of her hair and bent to shake out what was left of her braid.

“How did you know,” she muttered, her face towards the ground.

Malak considered how to answer as the other three alphas watched him. He could say that he had mapped every camera in the research station, and had his pack report to him if anything was added or moved. He could say that although he didn’t believe that Dr. Gillian wanted to hurt them in any way, he didn’t trust her to look out for the pack’s best interests either. He could say that he wasn’t an animal, or an experiment, but a person – the natural human government had said so, which he knew without any law to confirm it – and he deserved to have at least some of his thoughts remain private. He could say that he was a soldier, and a soldier looked for and took every advantage he could get, even in peacetime.  It turned out he didn’t have to say anything, because Smierc choose that moment to come retrieve Parshav.  She slapped the back of her pack-mate’s head and pulled him down into a headlock, concealing their faces.

“He’s the Alpha,” Smierc stated plainly. Malak could hear it in her voice, in the rumbling command behind it. Alpha with a capital A. The Alpha. Three pairs of eyes turned toward him. One considering, one accepting, and one assessing.

“Hn.”

“Prove it.” That came not from Giltine, but from Almaut, and the female was quick to agree.

Malak had thought about that eventuality, he had discussed it some with Bee. He didn’t want to force submission. He didn’t want to become Alpha by tasting blood – but he would if he had to. There were other ways that he would try first, though. Malak let his arms fall to his side and took in a deep breath before opening his mouth. The roar felt good. It filled his chest with sound and rustled the leaves above him. It was a declaration, a warning, one that his ancestors – the barghest, not the humans – had used to intimidate enemies and claim territory.  When he was done, he looked out over the small field where all of the twenty-sevens had gathered. To a one, they were looking at him. Some jaws hung open. Some heads tilted to the side in displays of submission. Some had fallen to one or both knees.

My pack. My territory. Obey.

Bee was the Basics instructor for all of the twenty-sevens, he had taught them the simple language and they all understood Malak’s claim. He stood, waiting, hands loose and prepared for a fight, his eyes on the other alphas. Almaut tipped his head slightly, bearing his neck with a slight smile. Skoll nodded deeply, stepping back and splaying his arms out to his sides. Giltine flared her nostrils, scenting him, he was sure. Whatever she smelled, it made up her mind.

“I guess that’s okay,” she said slowly.  She reached up to scratch at her nose, covering her mouth. “The pack comes first, or I’ll take your place.”

Malak nodded, “Agreed.”

Barghest: Chapter 9

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