Timberwoof sat at his desk in the captain’s cubby, writing in his personal journal.
Captain, Jackal’s Trove
I thought I was in deep shit when I found out what my officers had done. Oh, woof! In any civilized world, trading a pup for a keg of beer should have landed one in serious bureaucratic red tape if not in serious prison. My officers did the right thing, and we were able to convince the station commander and the Wolfheim Consul that we didn’t break any laws. They dotted all the Is and crossed all the Ts … and they really wanted this to work out for them and for Bren.
Did we do the right thing, taking this young wolf aboard the ship? He had been waiting for three weeks already for a Wolf ship to come take him home. Our interstellar travel is just beginning; there aren’t that many Wolf ships, and not that many ships headed toward Wolfheim. How long would he have waited for the next ship? That’s all beside the point now. He’s our responsibility.
There was a knock at his door.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
“Captain Timberwoof?” came the youthful voice.
“Is that Bren?”
“Yes, sir. Can I come in?”
“Oh, of course. Come in.”
Timberwoof was annoyed at the interruption, yet felt obligated to treat this young wolf kindly. When he saw Bren’s sad face, it stirred his own sadness and a longing he hadn’t been aware of. He felt uncomfortable … but he had a duty.
“What’s the matter?”
Bren closed the door.
“I got a letter from my sire.”
“Yeah. The communications officer gave it to me. As soon as I got set up in the station’s computers, the letter found me and got transferred here.”
“What does he say?”
“Basically he’s sorry he abandoned me. Says he tried to look for me. But my datapad died so I never got it.”
Timberwoof looked at Bren.
“Bad things happen. All you can do is get up and keep going.”
“Yeah. I guess. I’m all alone. I miss my mothers and fathers. I miss my sibs.”
Timberwoof took a breath; this stirred pain in him too. How to help this pup’s loneliness and anxiety? The best he knew was to start with the facts.
“I’ve been lonely too. But you’re on a wolf ship now. You’ve got air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat. You have clothes to wear. You’ve got everyone on the command pack to look after you.”
“I miss my sire. I miss my fathers.”
Oh, woof, thought Timberwoof. This is going to be tough.
“Who’s gonna be my father? Are you gonna be my father?”
Timberwoof sighed. He didn’t want to make a scene.
“I’ll be your father.”
That felt reckless; Timberwoof had to moderate it.
“If that’s okay with you.”
Bren looked up at him with sad eyes. Timberwoof blinked away his own tears.
“Com’ere,” Timberwoof said.
He opened his arms and offered a hug. Bren tentatively accepted it, then impulsively grabbed Timberwoof and held him tight. Timberwoof held the pup close, wrapped his arms protectively around him. He felt Bren quiver and cry silently.
“Yeah. There you are. Yeah.”
“But big pups don’t cry!”
“Oh, yes we do. It’s okay to cry.”
“Yes, I do. Sometimes. I was taken to a prison. They shaved me and tattooed me with these stripes. They gave me a collar.”
Bren looked at Timberwoof thoughtfully. Timberwoof looked at him, saw his pain.
“Bren, did you get a collar?”
“Good. Never accept a collar. Never give up your tail.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“Good wolf. And as your father, I’ll never let anyone cut off your tail or put a collar on you.”
Timberwoof hugged Bren.
“Are you feeling lonely?”
Bren didn’t answer for a while. Then, “Yeah. A lot.”
“Do you know the Lonely Wolf Howl?”
“No. That’s for the barbarians in the Wester Wood.”
“Who says that?”
“Everybody in Tarkel.”
“Well. I’m a barbarian from the Wester Wood. And I’ve gotta teach you the Lonely Wolf Howl.”
“It’s a basic part of our psychology, to express the need to be in a pack. And cause I’m your father. I’s my duty to teach you.”
“Huh. It’s barbarian.”
“It goes like this: ArooooooOOoOoOoOoOoOoOooooo. Can you do that?”
Bren looked at Timberwoof for a moment.
“I’m scared to.”
“Yeah. Try it anyway.”
Bren tried it tentatively. “ArooooOoOoOoooo.”
“That’s a good start. Can you feel it?”
“Yeah. It’s scary. It makes me sad.”
“I know. Try it again. Longer, louder.”
Bren made another howl. “ArooooooOOoOoOoOoOoOoOooooo!”
“Yeah,” said Timberwoof. “I can feel your loneliness. Once more, again, good and loud.”
Bren threw back his head and howled a long, painful lonely wolf howl. Timberwoof held him tight, and found himself quivering in loneliness.
There was a knock at the door.
“Are you all right in there?” It was Commander Fox.
“Come in. I’ve got a Lonely Wolf on my paws.”
“Oh, dear, dear, dear,” said Fox. “Come here, wolf. You’re with us now.”
Timberwoof could feel that Bren was conflicted about letting him go and accepting Fox’s hug. “Go to her, Bren. I’ll be here.”
Fox hugged Bren close.
“What’s going on?” asked Omega. “Who needs help?”
“Omega! We have a Lonely Wolf.”
“I heard. Here you are. Here we are. We’re all with you. Don’t worry.”
“Heh,” said Fox. “It’s getting crowded in here. I don’t want to spoil the mood but let’s move this out into the den.”
She poked an intercom. “Bridge, command pack quarters. We’re having a staff meeting. You’re invited to listen in.”
A cluster of wolves, Bren in the middle of them, moved into the main den of the command staff quarters. It was a cozy place set up for this kind of thing: couches and pillows, officer cubbies along the periphery. The wolves settled into the large communal couch and traded off giving hugs to their youngest pack member … and each other.
“Feeling better, Bren?” asked Omega.
“Yeah. A little. I still miss my sire.”
“That’s okay. You should remember him … But you need to go on. You’re with us now. Do your father proud. Do us proud.”
“Okay. I will.”
“And remember,” Timberwoof said. “We will always come back for you.”
Several of his officers traded meaningful glances with him.
“Always,” they said.
One of the lieutenants saw this. “Captain?”
“Mark[ Make sure he’s in the characters list], we can be casual here. Yes?”
“I’ve heard you and some of the other officers say that before. ‘We will always come back for you.’ What does it mean?”
Timberwoof looked at Fox. Bren and Mark listened.
“Several years ago Timberwoof was arrested on false piracy charges. He was taken away to prison.”
“Black Gazza prison?” asked Bren.
“Yes, indeed. Black Gazza prison.”
“Hah. That’s a fairy tale. One of my moms would tell that to us to make us behave.”
“Bren, it is real. And Timberwoof has been there. Look at his fur. They shaved him and tattooed him. That’s why he’s this color.”
Bren looked at Timberwoof. He had heard the story already.
Timberwoof closed his eyes, remembering the pain.
“Did it hurt?” asked Bren.
Timberwoof looked at Bren. “Yeah. It hurt.”
“Did you cry?”
Timberwoof nodded. “Yeah. I cried. I was lonely, too. For a long time. But …”
Timberwoof looked at each of the older officers one by one.
“They came back for me.”
“Timberwoof, we’ll always come back for you,” Fox said.
The younger officers, realizing they had just received some important pack lore, repeated: “We will always come back for you.”
“And you, Mark. And you, Bren,” said Timberwoof, looking at each one in turn.
“You’re one of us now. We’ll always come back for you.”
“That makes me so happy I could howl.”
The older officers looked at Bren; he looked around as though he had made a mistake.
“Well,” said Fox, smiling. “Let’s hear it. Let’s hear your happy howl.”
Bren looked at Fox like she was crazy.
“Sounds like a sixteen-year-old trying to be an adult. You owe us a happy howl.”
“Or,” said Mark, “this.” He poked Bren in the ribs and gave him a good tickle. Bren tried to suppress his giggles, but broke out laughing.
Mark poked him some more.
In between fits of giggles, Bren managed to emit a semblance of a happy howl. Mark relented his tickling so Bren could howl properly. The whole pack joined in.
“Hah!” said Bren.
“Hah! In Tarkel, everyone says that Wester Woofs are crazy and barbaric.”
“Well. You’re not barbaric. … But you are crazy. In a good way.”
The navigator launched another tickling assault on Bren’s ribs.
“Happy howl! Happy howl and I’ll stop!”