There was a time, Rebecca’s father had told her, when wolves could not speak.
They were mute. They were as dumb as any other animal – whatever sounds they made were no more intelligible than birdsong, or dogs barking, or the loud, intermittent wail of the stray cats that so often woke her during her Brooklyn childhood. They were mute, he’d told her, and few. They almost never attacked people. And they did not form armies.
Rebecca cradled her shotgun, and tried to stay awake.
They were actually very few indeed, back then. Rebecca knew that in the days long before the war, people had actually worried that there were too few wolves. When the nations of men had sprawled across and crowded the Americas, people worried that wolves had been an “endangered” or “threatened species.” To her, it sounded like a sick joke – humans worried that there weren’t enough wolves.
Sitting on her backpack outside her tent in the August humidity, she cursed the darkness and continued drumming her fingers against her knees. It was good for staying awake. It wasn’t as good as coffee, real coffee. The last time she’d had real coffee was in New York City, and she hated the instant stuff that Caleb liked to bring along on patrol.
She dropped her head. She pulled the barrette out from behind it, and her shock of red hair fell down around her fair face like a crimson cowl. Conscious of her Squadsmen around her, she was drumming her fingers to hide the trembling of her hands.
History was difficult for her to picture. Her chosen profession – indeed, the latter half of her life – resulted entirely from the war. (She, like virtually anyone who saw combat, regarded it simply as “the war.” Civilians in the fortified East Coast cities most often called it either “World War III” or “The Wolf War.” If they were histrionic enough, they referred to it as “The War Between the Species.” During her first (and only) year of college, she’d been taught the truly pedantic appellation of “the Global Interspecies Conflict.” But to her, or anyone else wearing a uniform, it was simply the war. Or, even more simply, it was the shit.
She stopped drumming her fingers. She decided to rise and walk the perimeter. It wasn’t much of a perimeter, really, just 90 square feet on a dark hilltop, containing 20 Squadsmen, above the wooded suburbia of some random, formerly inhabited town in what men still liked to call New Jersey. There were 20 Squadsmen here, when there should have been 24. Rebecca didn’t want to think about that.
Below her Squad, in the valley to the north, lay the symmetrical long rows of the empty shells of what had been houses. This had been a neighbourhood once. Thirty years of overgrowth had swallowed up most of the wooden structures, so that they were little more than oddly shaped,
vine-covered lumps, barely distinguishable from the natural landscape. The roads between them were uneven beds of cracked and faded asphalt, long since reclaimed in spots by erosion and wildgrass.
The largest man-made structure that was still fully intact was the blackened, boxlike fossil of a jackknifed tractor trailer, its driver’s mummified face a pale oval against its window, like a dried albino peach. From the day’s reconnaissance, Rebecca knew that the houses, too, held only the dead. The place, for all practical purposes, was a mausoleum.
She looked to the east for comfort. Even here, New York City’s lights created a warm glow along the night’s horizon. The Manhattan of 2054 was still as full of light and life as it had always been.
She should have been sleeping. That was standard operating procedure. She was a Captain. She had not one, but two, well trained sentries who were awake and walking perimeter. The first was Owens, the Brit. The second was Francis. The first she could barely understand, and the second she disliked.
“Hallo, then?” Owens chimed. He slung his weapon around his shoulder and greeted her, when he saw she was awake. “Not sleeping, Ma’am? Everything is fine, get to your tent.” He smiled, his rough, round face just a little bit reassuring. There was genuine concern in his voice.
Thank God. Owens had uttered a sentence that she actually could make sense of. Owens had a cockney accent. Over the past two months since he had been assigned to her Squad, it had often embarrassed her that she couldn’t understand what one of her own people was saying to her.
Owens was a transplant from the United Kingdom. The UK, as so many Brits were wont to explain, was basically an island fortress. It was better protected, even, than New York City. It had done so well for itself in the war that it now simply exported its soldiers to places that needed them. One result was that there were a hell of a lot of British, Irish and Scots fighting in places like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Another result was that there were a hell of a lot of American Captains who had to ask their Squadsmen to repeat themselves.
“Not sleepy.” She answered as pleasantly as she could, and smiled back. At only 5 feet 2 inches, she literally had to look up at him as she spoke. She brushed her locks away from her bright green eyes and hugged her petite form a little tighter.
She should have been sleeping, she knew that. She needed sleep to do her job. Her job was to think and make decisions. Her job was to be confident and sure. Her job was to lead. She didn’t like her job.
“Not sleepy,” she said again, and ran her fingers through her hair. She smiled again, too. Owens was one of the most brutish looking men she had ever encountered, but she’d served with him just long enough to know better about him. “How about I take over?”
“You aren’t up for watch yet, Ma’am,” he said.
His voice was level, as always. He emerged from the shadows so quickly that it startled her. He was as quiet as a wolf, which maybe explained why he was so good at killing them.
“In fact,” Francis said placidly, “you aren’t up at all. I thought Captains slept, while front men watched.”
“Well, maybe I’m a front man at heart,” she raised her eyebrows and shrugged. She smiled as broadly as she could, crossed the unlit campsite, and pointed her shotgun at the dark. Owens smiled, not seeing through her bravado. Francis did not smile.
She could feel Francis’ eyes on her back. She wanted to turn around. She wanted to tell Francis exactly what she thought of him. She wanted …
“Movement!” Caleb said breathlessly. His thin frame shuddered, as he fairly spasmed out of his sleeping bag. His eyes went wide, as he pointed to the southeast. “Movement, Ma’am, I fucking swear it!”
Both of her sentries snapped to the task. Owens and Francis stood back to back, their weapons raised. Whatever the differences in their perso-nalities, they functioned well together tactically: in an instant, Francis covered the north, while Owens covered the south. Rebecca saw Owens’ body stiffen at the threat as he pointed and swept his weapon. Francis looked relaxed enough, but Francis was always relaxed.
Caleb, despite his training, very nearly panicked.
“Ma’am, I saw movement. No shit. Seriously,” he said hoarsely, and too loudly. He pointed to the southeast again. Caleb was a fine field surgeon, but a damned liability in combat.
Rebecca just wanted to shut him up. If there were wolves out there, they had already marked the position of Rebecca and her Squad. If they were drones (which was likely, she thought), they were too stupid to relay the news of her Squad to the main pack any time soon. They would attack by themselves, and that could be handled.
If there were lieutenants among the drones … Rebecca didn’t want to think about that, any more than she wanted to think about the four men she’d already lost. Her people were disciplined and well trained. As a Captain in the Special Animal Warfare Service (SAWS), she’d earned not just accolades, but also professional soldiers who were the best of New York City. The men and women of SAWS Squad 54 didn’t need an order to awaken. Caleb’s panicked voice was enough.
They ringed around the perimeter silently. Their weapons made no sound, as they were already loaded and locked. Their night vision goggles slipped on. The front men crouched and pointed their weapons in all directions. The sharpshooters pointed theirs as well and scanned for targets. The front men were the less talented marksmen. They wielded Benelli Super 90 M4 combat shotguns, selected for their stopping power.
Their job was to stop any wolves from reaching the sharps.
The sharps held M40 sniper rifles, and their job was to identify a lead wolf and kill it. However intelligent the wolves might be, they’d never really lost their cardinal weakness – kill the lead wolf, and the rest were likely to break ranks.
“There …,” Caleb pointed, more diffidently this time.
She looked. To her, there was nothing but another noiseless corner of the New Jersey hills. There was nothing but another dead, quiet corner of another dead place in another dead town. There were no wolves, no humans, just quiet. In the open, lightless expanse of the continent, she almost wished for a full-fledged battle. She hated the quiet. And even more than that, she hated being still.
“Owens?” she whispered.
“Francis?” she asked.
“Gimme your NVD,” she told Caleb, who hadn’t even the presence of mind to remember to use it. He handed her his Night Vision Device, a binoculared AN/PVS-14. She made a short show of using them, scanning the dark, wooded hillside below her Squad.
Her people needed an order. She obliged them.“Don’t shoot unless you’re sure of a target,” she said. “You’re Squadsmen, not dumbass Army. So think first and then shoot straight.” Her own shotgun felt heavy in her hand. She saw nothing and heard nothing.
Caleb’s fear did not subside. Instead of offering her real information, he became more talkative. His thin blonde head bobbed up and down on his skinny neck as he sought reassurance from his Captain. “Ma’am? I did see something. I did. Could be a rug, Ma’am. I swear I’m not fucking hallucinating. Movement there.” His eyes fixed on some point in the southeast, rigid and yet uncertain.
Caleb was weak, frightened, and the least reliable of her Squadsmen. Another Captain would seek to calm him, quiet him, gently counsel him into being quiet enough not to endanger the rest of the Squad. Rebecca almost tried that.
“Ma’am…” Caleb said, again too loudly. “I …”
“For God’s sake, Caleb!” she hissed. “Don’t speak!”
Her instincts took hold of her.
“We’re moving,” she told Owens. “Now. Ditch the tents – ditch everything except ammo. Un-ass the AO. We’re moving to the pickup point. Now.” She turned to Staff Sergeant Adrian Smalls. “Smalls, cover our six.”
Her people were smart enough and experienced enough to follow her orders quickly and quietly. They were also smart enough and experienced enough to question her response. She saw that in their eyes, as they grabbed their ammunition – most of all, in Francis’ eyes.
“Just do it, okay?” It was worded as a question, but it was voiced as an order. “Load up and move to the pickup point!” Her people followed. The 54th was on the move.
Movement. Movement felt good. Movement kept you alive. A wolf couldn’t take a bite out of your ass if you were moving at fifty miles per hour, could it?
Since childhood, movement had been her salve. She had always been physically small – smaller than the boys, smaller than the other girls, smaller than anyone in her classes in school, smaller, always, than she would have liked. She was small, but she was also fast – preternaturally fast, it sometimes seemed. She’d learned to walk at age one, and she’d once outrun her own father at age five, at an unexpectedly eventful picnic in Prospect Park. She’d won the Brooklyn races for her age group at age 13, despite the competition of athletes that were the best of the borough. At age 19, she’d humiliated her own drill sergeant at boot camp. In her most private moments, she’d liked to imagine her scarlet hair as the bright red tail of a comet.
Rebecca and her people were moving – running. They were moving fast – as fast as they could, anyway. The trees snapped by them; the bushes brushed their knees. Their tents and their food were behind them. Their guns were in their hands, and their ammo sacks smacked painfully against their hips.
They ran. Air filled her lungs. The continent was a deadly, terrible place but, oh, how the crisp forest air kissed her mouth and asked to be consumed. The air in New York City had always blessed her when she ran, with its intoxicating, life-giving oxygen. But here in hell, the air was, paradoxically, even better, unbetrayed by the scent of living man.
They ran. They still weren’t certain that wolves had marked their position, so their torches were turned off, and they struggled to recover their way through the wooded hillside as they were trained to do in the dark – hands in front, proceeding from memory, eyes straining to rediscover the path they had made to get to their hilltop camp.
A howl arose from the darkness. Rebecca and her people stopped.
It began deeply. It began to the west, behind them, but definitely not far enough behind them so that they could hope that they hadn’t been followed.
It began as a low moan, like the moan of a once powerful but now dying man. It rose, both in volume and in pitch. As it grew louder, it became the wail of the banshee, the plea of the damned. It reached crescendo. And then it was answered.
A dozen – then two dozen – other voices joined it out of the night. The moans rose now not only from the west, behind them, but from the east, before them. The moans rose from the north. The moans rose from the south. It was a chorus of moans, and now Rebecca and her troops knew
that they were surrounded.
To a civilian, the sound would have signalled death. But Rebecca and her troops were not civilians. They weren’t even regular Army. They were SAWS Squadsmen. They had more than a nodding acquaintance with the methods of their enemy. To them, tonight, the moans were a tactical mistake.
“Ma’am?” Owens smiled, as he dropped to one knee and pointed his weapon. “Not more than 15 or 18 of them. All sides.”
“Maybe a few more, Ma’am,” Francis told her. “I’d say 20 to 25 rugs, Ma’am. Nothing we can’t push back at.”
Rebecca felt some of her old courage return to her. Wolves were smart. But people were smarter. The wolves had meant to intimidate them, to frighten them, to let them know that they were surrounded and that a confrontation was inevitable. They had achieved that.
They had also given away their positions, and the strength of their numbers. Rebecca now knew that she had 20 Squadsmen against maybe 24 of the enemy. And she had a clear idea about where the enemy was. This was shaping up to be a fair fight.
“Lights,” she commanded.
Twenty strong torch beams hit all sides of the woods surrounding her Squad.
“I want the sharps to shoot first and the front men to hold back until necessary,” Rebecca said. “Fire at will when you have to, but only after it’s necessary. Let’s see what they’ve got before we give them the full treatment. You know what to do.”
And they did. The first charge didn’t happen until five quiet minutes later, and it was repelled at once. It was one drone at first – thin, desperate, and starving. It was white-furred, and it rocketed toward them from the underbrush to the north. Her people’s torches found it quickly.
By its looks, it was a Melville Island Wolf – Canis lupus arctos, Rebecca’s mind flashed – which was fairly unusual this far south. Owens cut it down when it was fifty feet away.
The next two charges came instantaneously with the first wolf’s death – one from the northwest and one from the south. Bushes rustled, and black ravenous forms shot forth like hungry bullets from both directions. The charges happened quickly enough that Rebecca knew she wasn’t dealing only with drones. There was a lieutenant operating here, she decided, coordinating the enemy’s movements. It was probing her defences, using the less intelligent animals as Judas goats.
Owens squeezed off two – then three – shots, and missed the attacker to the northwest. It barrelled toward the Squad. The beams from the torches seemed to make it more difficult to follow. Her people were the best, but they weren’t machines. Their hands wavered and searched, and the beams from the torches made confusing shadows flash across the
trees. As it raced toward Rebecca and her people, it – or its shadow – seemed to jump sideways, forward and back again. For a moment, Rebecca imagined, it moved as fast as she could.
Francis’ single gunshot announced the end of the attacker from the south.
“Front men!” Rebecca screamed. Seventeen shotguns sounded, firing in all directions. The New Jersey woods around her were filled with flying metal.
The thunder from her own defences stung her ears. She resisted the urge to cover them.
When she recovered her equilibrium, she saw that the wolf from the north still jumped, but harmlessly now, and easily visible. It shook and gyrated in a newly wet patch of wild grass ten feet away. Most of the drone’s hindquarters were now missing, but it still struggled to move, to leap, to pursue. Rebecca didn’t know if it was reflex or instinct or just the rabid hunger that always characterized its caste.
It had white fur, but the way its mortally wounded body twisted and shuddered in the still-dancing shadows, she couldn’t yet identify its subspecies.
Besides, she had other concerns. The lieutenant here was a sharp one. It would have had to prepare the drones in advance for so well timed attack. She waited for the next charge.
She waited for a full seven minutes. They all did.
When nothing happened, she decided to move her people again.
“Move!” she ordered. “To the pickup point!” She led the withdrawal of her troops by moving quickly, as always. She was the fastest of her peers, as always. And, as such, she was the first of them to see the wolf lieutenant.
It was proud. It was strong. It was beautiful, in an abstract sense, she decided.
It stood between two pine trees, maybe thirty feet from her Squad to the north-east. It was one of the big greys, a Canadian timber wolf. Its coarse grey fur shone in the errant light that her Squadsmen’s torches cast during their hasty exit. Its yellow eyes reflected that light like angry twin stars. It was muscular. Its upper body was sinewy and pronounced, and its thick neck supported a broad, fog-coloured head. Its eyes met her own.
Its eyes didn’t show the singular imperative – the overwhelming hunger – of a drone. It was hungry, yes, as they all were, but not starving. Its status among its kind guaranteed that it was nourished. It looked with sentience and malice.
Part of her mind – the remorseless, scientific part that she could never put at rest despite her fear – identified its subspecies. Canis lupus occidentalis, her mind told her.
And then it talked.
“Surrender,” the wolf said. It had the same strange voice that they all
had, hoarse and staccato. She was certain that the damned thing smiled as it addressed her.
Her reflexes were as fast as the rest of her. She fired her shotgun. She’d brought her weapon up as fast as she could, pulled the trigger without pausing to aim. The air before her exploded in sound, and one of her Squadsmen – Sheila, a younger girl – shrieked and fell to the ground because her Captain’s shot had been fired too close to her left ear. But when the smoke cleared and Sheila, cupping her ear, managed to stifle her screams, all that was left in the lieutenant’s place were two pine trees and empty space between them. One tree’s bark had been stripped away by metal. Of the wolf, there was nothing.
It talked, and it got away.
There was more.
“Captain?” Owens asked. “Captain, stand down!” He brought to her another concern. “Ma’am! Where is Caleb?”
They found Caleb 120 feet back. He hadn’t kept pace. He had always been the weakest of her Squad, but seldom the slowest. He’d been slow tonight, as it turned out.
They knew this because his throat had been removed. They found him flat on his back, beneath a swath of yellow wildflowers that bloomed even at night, where a wolf drone had silently overtaken him during her Squad’s withdrawal. The wildflowers almost matched his blond hair.
He had glazed, sad eyes and little left of his neck beyond its spinal cord and some connective tissue. The arteries of what remained of his lower neck fed a wet, dark patch on the forest floor. They made great dark drops across the spade-shaped, green lower leaves of the wildflowers.
Rebecca had endangered her Squad. She had wounded one of her own Squadsmen herself. She had lost a skilled field surgeon. In Caleb, she had also lost a childhood friend.
She was bereaved. She was confused. The trembling in her hands returned, and she realized that she was terrified.
There was a time, Rebecca’s father had told her, when wolves could not speak. She wished for that time.
Today was her birthday. She was 33.
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