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Story Excerpts

The Work of Wolves

by Tegan Moore

I am a good dog.

The scent trails are already as broken by the wind as the apocalyptic neighborhoods they lead through, and smoke from a fire half a mile southeast adds another layer of complexity. Following one trail is like following the roots of a plant wound tight together in the dirt.

No, better: It is like sorting through the fallen trees after this storm. Difficult to tell where one tree begins and the other ends, what belongs to what, and where the different parts are from.

That’s a very good Is Like. I save it to keep it with my other good ones.

The sector clear, I send the final readings back to Carol via DAT. She’s behind me with the field assistant, standing on the hood of a car. I can hear the distant, quiet tick of her DAT receipt.

“Sera,” she calls out, “slow down and stay within my visual range.”

Carol should hurry and follow me per standard procedure instead of yelling from the hood of a wrecked car. I don’t have time to wait for her.

Barometric pressure dropping, I ping back to her DAT. I see her hand touch the receiver in her ear from the corner of my eye as I trace the foundation where a prefabricated house once stood. Significant enough to indicate further storms approaching.

“Sera,” my DAT says, but I also hear Carol’s voice carry over the rubble field of tangled two-by-four framing, shingles peeled from rooftops, tatters of furniture, and twisted textiles. She struggles down from the car into the wreckage. “Stay in range, goddammit. Slow down!”

Carol is now too far away to direct or even accompany my search. I don’t need her direction, but the more distance between us, the greater the chance of a missed opportunity. She is slow, perhaps deliberately slow. What does that indicate? Will this also negatively impact the speed at which she acknowledges my alert?

I jump up on an intact retaining wall where I can catch the breeze’s fresh edge. From here it’s easier to see the destruction for what it was before the storm: broken stumps where dogs might have lifted their legs, sidewalks where bicycles and skateboards ruckle-d along, driveways. Here and there a few houses stand, debris piled at their foundations. In a few days those piles will become a haven for rats and mice.

In the distance there are a few humans, non-targets I’ve already cleared from my cache. People who lived here, who now pick through the storm’s detritus. I want to give them an Is Like, but there’s no time. I am working. My priority is to do the best job possible.

I turn my nose to the wind.

The cool air that sucks past the moisture in my nostrils is busy with stories, directions, convoluted half-finished conversations. My vision fuzzes out, becomes irrelevant. Sound snaps through here and there, but I am thinking now with my olfactory bulb:

Broken power line burn reaching this way fitfully due to unpredictable wind pattern shifts

Torn sod broken grass wet turned soil chemicals down further raw sewage must be septic systems in some of these prefab units but trapped not seeping yet

Old human-trails anxiety adrenaline panic the lingering scent of cadaver which has been removed not my target

Broken concrete split shredded pine timber sodden plywood soaked furniture batting

Burst of char as the burn kicks up on the wind then turns back in on itself

The detritus of wind distance age broken-down-ness places happenings irrelevant

Girl

North very faint filtered through quite a bit of green sap fresh branches downed trees but

I ping Carol. Interest. Mark location, north northwest. I take another deep suck of air through my nose to confirm. This way.

“Wait for support.” Even over the DAT, Carol sounds out of breath.

I can’t wait. I need to do my job. Carol and Devin the field assistant can find me via the DAT’s GPS. I must follow this hint of Girl.

Through a hedge and I’ve already lost the scent, but in a moment a memory of Girl passes on the air, and my head turns toward the smell so rapidly it tweaks a muscle in my neck before my body can follow. I am moving as quickly as my nose will allow, every step picked out for me by the scent and what it says I should do.

The world fades to almost nothing, just my nose and the scent and stimulus-response, until a semi looses a roar from twenty meters away and jerks me back into audio/visual.

I have been following cyclone fencing along a housing development’s edge. The storm has punched through the fence in places, and beyond the openings, cars on the interstate are slowing to gawk at the damage. The semi honks again, trapped behind the slowdown.

Its bellow makes me think about Mack and the way his hot dark blood stank as it spread against the asphalt. I remember feeling in my skin and muscles that I would very much like to roll in that smell. A dog’s instinct. I should not have stopped to look at him when it happened, but I needed confirmation he was dead.

Irrelevant to my current search. I shake my head to clear wind-driven grit from my eyes and turn into the current again, reaching. I ping Carol my location—a reminder only, she knows how to find me—then hunt the wind. READ MORE

 

Waterlines

by Suzanne Palmer

“Ray!”

Lena stuck her head through the open door of his office. She was wearing her neon green parka, the cowl pulled tight around the oval of her face. Her cheeks were turning a bright, angry red, and he could almost feel cold still radiating off her; she must have come straight here from outside. “Something’s coming up!” she said. He paused his tablet, midway through yet another grant form, and frowned at her. He hadn’t even gotten to requisitions, security logs, or his post-lunch pot of coffee yet, much less feeling ready for guessing games. “What’s come up?” he asked.

“No, coming up,” she said. She stepped in and dumped his weather gear on the extra chair in one corner of the small room. “I couldn’t find your boots.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked. It was a balmy -10C out, not counting wind chill, and as much as she seemed immune to the weather, he had no intention of leaving the station for anything short of an emergency until it was at least single-digits positive.

“A walker,” she said.

“What? It’s too early for them to be moving south. Where is it going?”

“It’s about three kilometers out and heading right toward Jettyrock.”

“Shit,” Ray said, barely managing to keep his coffee from hitting the floor as he scrambled out of his chair and around his desk to grab his gear.

Lena raised an eyebrow. “Why are you wearing your boots indoors?” she asked.

“In the six standard years, one hundred forty-eight and a half days since I was assigned this post, my toes haven’t been warm even once,” he said. “It’s the only thing I envy the damned Yetis.”

He took the boots off long enough to pull on his thick, heated snowpants. Lena helped him get his coat on, then he followed her, feeling ten kilos heavier, into the hall and down toward Icebreak Station’s nearest surface door.

Lena had been on Erax ten years longer than him, and she’d probably be here another ten after he was gone. She should’ve been made the surface administrator instead of some middle-aged button-pusher whose career had permanently stalled one promotion (he liked to think) short of incompetence, but she’d flatly refused. She’d said she didn’t want to have to get along with people, which made her ideally suited to be his security chief, not to mention a friend.

“Who spotted it?” he asked.

“Kenna,” she answered. “They’re out doing soundings on the ice sheet and she picked it up.”

Kenna was one of their small crew of xenobiologists, trying to catalog what tiny percentage of Eraxian life was within their reach. “Good,” he said. “She’s discreet.”

“That’s why I didn’t call you over the station comms: too many eavesdroppers,” she said. “But . . .”

“But?”

“Hudson was working tech on her detail.”

Well, shit, he thought. “So half the southern pole is heading out onto the damned ice already?”

“Anyone that’s awake and sober and can find their pants, yeah,” she said. “We still have a head start on most of them, if you can get your ass moving.”

“Get Firo and Firn and meet me at the rock. Put word out on the comms for everyone to stay the hell back or I’ll set the dogs on them.”

“Delighted to,” Lena said, and took off at a run. He stepped through the inner door, grabbed goggles off the rack, then braced himself before opening the outer door and stepping into the wind. Tiny, high-velocity particles of ice stung at him, like bees of an angry winter god. This, as he reminded himself every morning in the mirror, is why he kept his beard.

He crunched along the packed snow path to the charging shed where he undocked a skiff and headed due north toward the edge of the ice sheet. It had only just begun its spring recession, and if it were any later he’d have had to worry about cracks and crevasses where the edge was starting to calve, but for now all the scans showed it solid up to where the hulking outcropping they’d named Jettyrock jutted into the bright blue water. At the height of summer, when the land briefly emerged from its smothering white cover, the rock stood freestanding off the shore, breaking the waves into a deafening spray. Right now, it barely touched the ocean. There had been winters where it had entirely vanished beneath the ice, to emerge again from the churning summer melt unscathed.

If there were ships, it would have been the perfect place for a lighthouse, but both the surface and the depths of the planet-circling sea were strictly off-limits by treaty with the alien Oceanics. They don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to them, he’d been told by the local SystemOps Liaison and at least a half-dozen others while they were transporting him down on a drop ship for the very first time. They stay out of our way, and we stay way the hell out of theirs. The ocean is theirs and theirs alone. You need to cross? You take a fucking plane or an orbital hop. You wanna dip your toes in? Too bad. Just stick to the agreement, and everything will go smooth as ice.

Ray blamed the cold for freezing what little curiosity he might once have had about the Oceanics right out of him. As it was, the three to five hundred humans on the planet’s surface that he was responsible for made enough trouble on their own. READ MORE

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