File Under: Science Fiction [ Colony World | Into the Woods | Leader of the Pack | Woman’s Best Friend ]
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.80(h) x 1.30(d)|
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Author hometown: Oregon, USA
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An Oath of Dogs
By Wendy N Wagner
Angry RobotCopyright © 2017 Wendy N Wagner
All rights reserved.
Duncan's murderer shoved him across the bench seat until the open glove box filled his field of vision. One of Olive Whitley's drawings was in there, crinkled under the weight of Duncan's favorite wrench. He wanted to get up, to look anywhere else, to get himself someplace safe. But his hand only scrabbled weakly against the cheap fabric of the seat. He could hear the bubbles popping in his lungs as his airways filled with blood.
The other bastard, the one who'd picked up the bolt gun and cleaned off the prints, said something. His voice was too low to make out clearly.
"Then hide it in the woods." Duncan's killer gave Dunc's leg a shove. "The deep woods – someplace no one will go." He pulled himself up into the utility vehicle with a little grunt. The door slammed shut. "You brought this all on yourself," he said, his voice conversational, as if he was just making small talk at the Night Light over pool. "You shouldn't have come out here, Duncan. Huginn is no place for a limp wristed tree hugger like yourself."
Duncan coughed a spray of blood that spattered across the UTV's dash in a fine mist. Dark blood, not bright arterial stuff. He felt a little surge of hope. Maybe he wouldn't bleed out after all. He wished he could move his arms and pull the bolt out from between his ribs.
The utility vehicle jolted forward, shaking his body. "What the hell were you thinking going out there to Sector 13? You got that data line installed. You had no reason to go back."
"Fuckers," Duncan managed to choke out. The horrible burning in his chest sent a burst of pain deeper inside him. He gagged on blood. He had a great deal more to say, but his body wasn't about to oblige. What he knew about the company and the woods would stay unspoken now.
"Don't worry. Nobody else is as snoopy as you. And nobody's going to find you. I don't think anyone's going to look too hard – not the sheriff, and not your old fuck buddy, either." He was probably right. Not many people asked questions like Duncan did, and nobody listened to the answers carefully enough.
The UTV lurched and jolted on the rough road. Branches shrieked as they scraped across the vehicle's roof. The door vibrated as something slammed into it. They had to be headed out toward Sector 13. Duncan wished he could look at something else besides the goddamned glove box. Olive's picture was ruined – the spatters of his blood obscured the details of the little creatures she'd drawn. He was going to miss that kid. She could see the world around her, really see it, the way most people didn't even want to.
The bumping and thudding slowed until the UTV eased to a stop. The other man climbed down out of the rig, and for a moment it was just Duncan and his blood spatters and Olive's drawing. The colors wriggled and danced, the bright pinks and luscious yellows he'd never seen in anything living before he'd come to Huginn. If there was one thing he regretted about his life, it was that it had taken him so long to get to this stupid, wonderful moon. He thought about trying to pick up the drawing. Olive had wanted him to keep it.
Then the passenger door flew open and his armpits were seized. He slid out of the vehicle and hit the ground, hard.
His killer grabbed his arms. Duncan tried to twist away from him, but he didn't have the energy. He could barely breathe, although he could smell the woods all around him. The bright perfume of crushed button ferns brought a familiar sting to his nose.
He was going to die in the woods alone. The thought made him go cold.
"Wodin's coming up." The man grunted as he yanked Duncan over a fallen horsetail tree. He was skinnier and shorter than Duncan, and Duncan felt a perverse pleasure in the man's struggle. "Going to be full dark in about an hour. Lucky for me, the dogs don't usually come out until Wodin's high, and I'll be back in town by then."
Duncan made a little whimper.
"That's right. The dogs. Jeff Eames said he saw the dogs on his farm last night. That's not that far from here, really. They say a dog can smell blood up to four kilometers away. You think that's right?"
The skinny man dropped Duncan's arms, and Duncan fell onto his back. The broad limbs of a horsetail tree spread out above him, the candelabra arms nearly blocking out the sky. Full dark might not be for an hour, but it was plenty dark under the trees.
"I hope they don't find you, Chambers. We've all seen what the dogs do to the dead."
He walked away, his fancy cowboy boots jingling with every step. Duncan listened for the chiming to fade. Finally, the silence seemed complete, and he found the strength to push himself closer to the tree, where the up-swellings of its roots lifted his head a bit. It was harder to breathe now. He guessed he only had a minute left, maybe two. At least he could see the forest around him.
A leather bird dropped down beside him. Its eyeless face stretched toward him, its nostrils vibrating as it drew in his scent. The creature's soft clicking, the sound of a scorpion's feet on dry stone, made his skin prickle. Another landed next to it.
He choked on blood, coughed, gagged. The nearest leather bird rushed at him, its belly splitting open to taste the air. The yellow stinger inside shot out.
Duncan Chambers closed his eyes. Somewhere in the distance, a dog howled.
The cold drained out of her slowly. For a few seconds, Standish couldn't remember how to breathe, and then she gasped and choked and coughed up cryo liquid. Her abdominal muscles ached.
"There, there," the attendant murmured, the same soft-voiced woman who had intubated Standish on the other side of sleep. "It'll all come out in a second. Just breathe." Her hand was too warm where it gripped Standish's bicep. Standish wanted to wrench it off and sit up on her own, but she didn't have the energy for extraneous shit. Breathing was enough.
Then the fog cleared from her brain and she sat up fast enough to rip the monitor from her temple. "Hattie? Where's Hattie? My dog?"
The man sitting in the opened tube beside Standish gave her a sharp look. Half a dozen other passengers were rising, rubbing their still-cold throats, rotating their stiff necks. A second attendant, a painfully thin man with a handlebar mustache, opened the last tube in the room and frowned across at Standish.
The female attendant checked the display beside Standish's cryo tube. "You're getting too excited. Please lower your voice."
"Where the fuck is my dog?"
"She's still asleep. There's a different process for animals." The woman smiled with only her mouth. A set of tired lines stood between her eyebrows, and her skin looked parched. Space skin. When Standish had worked on Goddard Station, her skin could never get enough moisturizer.
Standish pushed the attendant out of the way and stood up, her legs wobbling. Her stomach twisted on itself. "I'm gonna throw up."
"Drink your slurry." The attendant handed her a plastic tube with a straw jammed into it. "And sit down before you fall down."
Standish toppled back on her butt. The padded cryo tube stuck to the backs of her bare legs. She fumbled the straw into her mouth.
"You've been asleep and frozen for more than a year, and now your body is restarting itself. Please try to breathe deeply and sip your slurry. I'll let you know when you can collect your pet."
"I need my fucking dog. Right now. So if you don't get her, I will."
The woman ignored her. Standish cleared her throat, which had turned from ice to dry flame, and tried swallowing more of the soupy stuff. It tasted like artificial cherry and vitamin tablets. "Hey, where are my things?"
"You just sit tight. I'll be back in a few minutes to help you with your things. I've got lots of passengers to wake up, Ms Standish."
The woman hurried out of the small room. Standish could hear her heavy footfalls in the corridor beyond. Standish eased herself to her feet again. She leaned on the bank of cryo tubes and took a sip of her fake food. She had to find Hattie.
"Persistent type, aren't you?" The man in the tube beside her took a last rattling slurp of his slurry. He had managed to drip some down the front of his hospital gown.
"Piss off." She shoved off the bank to propel her wobbly legs toward the numbered doors set into the wall. One of those lockers had to have her stuff in it. She threw open the first door. A pink carry-on: not hers.
"You've got a perky little ass, you know that?"
Standish ignored him. She opened the next locker, and the next. The one beside that held her bag, her ticket information tucked neatly into the front pouch. She pulled that out first, checking for Hattie's storage information. They'd put her in cargo over Standish's protests. There'd be no gravity down there. Fuck.
She tossed her gear on her empty cryo tube and stripped. She put on her clothes and boots as fast as she could manage, her fingers and legs quaking the whole time. They said cryo did a number on the body, and they didn't exaggerate. She had to swallow down her slurry more than once.
"All right, I'm off to get my dog," she announced. The slob was still sitting on the padded couch in his cryo tube, holding the slurry pouch as if it could hide the meager boner he'd popped while she was changing.
Standish propped her boot up on the edge of the tube. "It's the twenty-third century, not the tenth, shitface. If you come near me or anyone else, I'll throw you out an airlock. Do you understand?" She forced the toe of her boot into his crotch until tears welled up in his eyes.
She threw her bag over her shoulder and strode out into the hallway, flipping him off over her shoulder.
Beside the elevator bank, a view screen showed the hulking shape of the gas giant Wodin and its two attendant moons, Muninn and Huginn. The ship would enter orbit around Huginn soon, but even from this distance she could see the white swirls of clouds over the turquoise seas, the colors of a child's marble about to be swallowed by the great maw of space. She tore her eyes away from the screen and forced a deep breath. It was just a picture, she told herself. She was perfectly safe.
She jabbed at the call button and squeezed her eyes shut. She had never needed Hattie so badly before. There was so much space all around, every bit of it hungry and ready to swallow her. She couldn't breathe. She heaved up red slurry and watched it spatter on the beige plastic floor.
She fell to her knees. A hand touched her back.
"It's all right, Ms Standish. You should have just stayed in your berth."
She heaved again, but there was nothing else in her stomach. She wouldn't cry, though. Her stomach hurt, her head hurt, but there was no point crying about it.
Something wet and cold pressed against her cheek. She shivered.
"Ms Standish, I've brought you your dog. You should have told us she was a therapeutic animal."
She turned her head and got a faceful of Swiss shepherd tongue, stinking of multivitamins, a little dry, but definitely Hattie's. Standish wrapped her arms around the dog's neck and pressed her face into the thick white fur.
They would be on Huginn in a day and a half.
The leader looked back at the rest of the pack, their bodies taut arrows of pure intention, drawn to the cemetery by forces stronger than even the compulsion of their alpha. He could feel it too, his own flesh pulled achingly toward the freshly turned earth. One of their own was there, waiting for them. He couldn't stop the pack if he wanted to.
But he didn't want to. How could he want to? This was what it meant to be a pack: running together between the great trees and under the open sky, cool grit beneath his paw pads. There was a part of him, a part that he didn't like to look into, that had different ideas about living. He ignored that part. He was a dog. For him, the world was the tantalizing shift of the senses and the pure bliss of instinct obeyed. He leaped forward, his paws striking up pebbles that resounded against the hollow trunks of the horsetail trees.
The pack bayed with full voice as they surged out of the woods. It was a clear night; the planet's light rippled on their sleek coats and wet muzzles. One of the smaller dogs leaped over the nearest headstone, his back arched high and smooth, an echo of the stone's shape. The pack leader put a burst of speed into his paws and caught up with the smaller creature.
They were all big animals with thick coats and the disparate pieces of mixed breeds. A husky tail, a ridgeback hackle. The broad chest of a mastiff. They could have been any kind of dog, every kind of dog. The idea of a dog made real by sound and movement and the certainty of shadow. The pack leader slipped past a brightly painted cross that stood higher than his muscular shoulder and stopped at the edge of the naked clay soil.
The other dogs crowded around, overspilling the boundaries of the fresh grave, their paws sinking into the dirt. The alpha barked.
They began to dig.
For a few minutes all was silent, save for the patter of falling dirt and the deep breathing of the intent beasts. But then another scratching began, loud and frantic. A faint whine ran beneath it. Their packmate was suffering in there. The dogs dug faster.
Their nails scraped on wood, solid tight-jointed horsetail planks, but they didn't slow. They dug with skill, as if well practiced. One of them growled to itself. The others ignored it.
The damaged wood splintered beneath the collected weight of the pack. As if on cue, the dogs leaped out of the shallow grave, and with a tremendous flurry of barking, the top of the coffin exploded outward, a massive gray wolfhound bursting free. The rest of the pack circled it, barking, licking, pawing, delighted to puppyhood by the creature's presence. The alpha barked excitedly.
For a moment they tumbled and romped, content to have the pack reunited again, and then a different kind of instinct compelled them to action. Their nostrils quivered as they caught an irresistible smell. The pack leader fell behind as they trotted across the graveyard, steering clear of the ornate crosses and blue figurines marking the graves. They did not bark now. The jubilation had gone out of the group.
When they found the second patch of fresh dirt they began to dig. The pack leader watched them, uneasy. He sat down on his haunches and rubbed his dirty muzzle on his leg. He wanted to dig. He wanted to feel the cool soil press against his paw pads just as his packmates were feeling it. The delicious smell tugged at his nostrils, and a thread of hot slaver ran out of his mouth. He didn't know why he held back.
They didn't dig for long. At this end of the graveyard, there were fewer crosses to avoid, almost no statues of blue-clad women to be careful of. Their paws tore up the damp clods of clay and shredded the flimsy pressboard below. This time no muzzle strained up out of the ground. One by one, the dogs quit digging and fell in around the pack leader, watching the grave in silence. Finally, the largest of the dogs backed away from the grave, dragging a limp, linen-wrapped form behind it.
The package was the size and shape of a four year-old child.
The pack leader threw back his head again, and his howl cut through the night, a thin keening wail. In the houses on the shore of Canaan Lake, people stirred fitfully in their beds. In the farmyards, animals cried out in fear or huddled deeper inside their hutches. And in the horsetail trees along the highway, the things the colonists called birds buried their heads beneath their leathery wings.
The small shadow of the moonlet Muninn edged across the planet's face. The dogs raced out of the cemetery toward the lake, dragging their burden behind. The only evidence of their passing was a long strip of filthy cloth and two empty graves, and Frank the Caretaker had dealt with worse.
Only humankind has this instinct to name things and thus dominate them. What would this world be like if we had not called them horsetail trees and leather birds, names spun out of our experience as creatures of Earth? The names we gave them were themselves metaphors to make our relationship with this world consistent with our relationship to our home planet.
– from The Collected Wisdom of MW Williams
Excerpted from An Oath of Dogs by Wendy N Wagner. Copyright © 2017 Wendy N Wagner. Excerpted by permission of Angry Robot.
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