I sprang onto the picket fence, gauging the trajectory like those old American baseball holos we’d seen in school, back before the empire and its pastime collapsed, of course.
The pungent smell of the Conalds’ dog hit me, but he wasn’t anywhere in their big yard. Must be in their two-story mansion. What did a dog do all day? Despite being wolfish—and an unusually wild animote at that—I hadn’t the slightest idea. Actually, domesticating pets at all was weird, but the Conalds were good people, I guess.
I dove for the ball but came up shy as it clattered to the ground alongside Mr. C’s rusty e-bike. He’d let me ride it once. It’d be nice not to have to walk everywhere, but would take Mom months at the center to afford something like that. At least we didn’t hit it or break a window, again…
My spine tingled as I reached for the ball. There was a faint crunch.
Bruce appeared from around back, staring me down, the fifty-kilo mutt baring his teeth as he crouched. Jeez. I took a step back, unsure how to react—it was always strange between us half-human animotes and animals. Was it jealousy? My claws shot out as I stood taller to scare the dog off. The wind turned, and a whiff of flowers and feces hit me.
Bruce froze and time slowed. Without warning, he dropped his shoulder and charged, muscled body bounding toward me as he built up to killing speed, his uncomplicated eyes burning with primal anger.
Crap. I ran for the fence. I was fast, he was faster.
At the last second, I spun and snarled, flashing my fangs. He skidded, whimpering, and slammed through the white fence, bolting down the dirt road.
Shoot. Should I follow? It might make things worse. I ran to Mr. C’s porch and hammered on the painted door. Nothing.
The window didn’t help, only my disheveled reflection: bags under dark silver eyes and even my hair—short with flecks of silver, black and brown—looked messy. Forgot to shave too, dark stubble covered my pointed cheeks and chin. Oh well. Mr. C wouldn’t mind. Another knock. No luck.
Now what? “Pavel? Toras?” I yelled. They must have taken off when the dog appeared. Crap. Tapping my wristband, I opened a virtual screen, fingers flying through the air as I fired a quick message to Mr. C explaining what happened.
I headed in the direction Bruce had run, but stopped. After what happened at Ms. Ivey’s, I knew I should grab Mom. She’d have a fit otherwise. I sprinted home.
Three minutes later, our two-room hovel came into sight. The door was ajar, good old Elly at the kitchen table, calling Vovi from the sound of it. Elly’s blue eyes focused on two glimmering holographic screens floating in front of her.
Mom was out back, bent over her newest pet project; a tangle of sweet potatoes along the 3D-printed wall. Her jet black hair was in a bun, furry arms sweating. Being wolfish, we didn’t eat many vegetables, but “It’s cheaper if you grow it,” as she liked to say. Unless you lived in the cities... but for bottom-dwellers like us, that would never happen.
I told her everything.
She dropped the roots and whipped around, brown eyes thrashing me as mine sought cover in the dirt beneath my feet. “Not again.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” I said before she got going.
She stood, her eyes blistering. “It’s never your fault!”
After getting the facts straight, we headed out. It was a chilly autumn day, but a beautiful one, colorful leaves dancing in the wind. Mom took a deep, calming breath, looking around our well-kept little yard as mist rose from her lips. “Did Roge see what happened before you left? I hope you didn’t leave a mess and not say anything, Raek Mekorian. That’s not how I—”
“No, I tried…” I cut in. I explained everything again which seemed to placate her, somewhat.
Dread built as we walked the dusty road, past sporadic huts and shacks. A handful of furry neighbors were out, enjoying the weather or on video calls as they gardened or gossiped, but we hurried past. Mom was on a mission, which was never good.
As we got closer, Mr. C’s slimy, wet musk assaulted my extra sharp nose. He must be back. I should have waited...
Mom’s expression darkened with each passing meter as she ran callused hands through her sweaty hair. Not a good sign.
Mr. C appeared, his pale-green-tinted skinscales standing out against the backdrop of the enormous two-bedroom house. He was tall and bald, with emerald eyes, a pointed nose, and his signature ultra-warm red jacket.
Mom put on her best smile. “Roge, I am really sorry. Whatever the boy’s done, we’ll make it right.”
“I know, Preta. You wolfish are good about honor,” he replied. “I got your message, Raek. What happened?”
Both adults turned to me and I fidgeted. “We were all playing down the street...” I pointed for effect. I’d been through this enough to know details and sincerity went a long way. “I didn’t mean to scare him or hurt him, I swear. Dogs don’t do well with our kind.”
We all shared a knowing look. It happened all the time with us animotes—descendants of those ill-advised initial genetic experiments—and unenhanced animals. It was innocent at first, a gene here, a mutation there. But it was never enough. You’d think reptilian genes for regeneration or canine ones for metabolism could only help, right? Talk about unintended consequences... Eventually, there were dozens of types of animotes and the -ish thing stuck, hence “wolfish.”
Mr. C pulled up a virtual screen with several areas highlighted and pushed it to my school-issued wristband. “Bruce has run away before. I’m sure Raek will find him.” He patted me on the shoulder. “Be glad you’re not a cold-blooded old fart like me, it’s going to be cold tonight.”
That would suck. I turned to leave.
“Don’t make me regret this, Raek Mekorian!” Mom yelled before I’d gone far.
“Yes, Mom,” I answered without looking back, rolling my eyes. She always had to have the last word...
“I’m sorry,” she said as I took off. “Kids, you know?”
“Don’t be too hard on the boy. Remember the things we used to....”
By the time I reached the crumbling mass graves at the edge of town—about two hundred meters out and not the place to dilly-dally—my sharp ears could no longer hear what they were saying. Odd, must be windier than usual. Skirting the creepy memorial, I shivered, avoiding the place like, well—like the plague it once was before it changed everything.
Where was he? It’d been almost an hour.
Something was out there, in the murky forest. The fur on the back of my arms and neck shot up, an electric shock stabbing my spine. My heart raced and the wolf in me smelled blood, feces and fowl too.
I found Bruce, what was left of him that is, the moon casting an eerie glow on his limp body. Insects stirred and wings fluttered as I crept into the clearing. It was surrounded by billowing pines and hefty oaks, making it near impossible to see into the wood or distinguish much beyond the sappy butterscotch of the trees.
The dog’s scruffy hind leg was broken and missing from the joint down. Warm blood dripped from the wound.
Ugh. I knelt next to him, but his side wasn’t much better. Gashes several centimeters deep ran the length of his torso; sticky blood matted his fur. Was that bone? Jeez! What did this? The claws were sharp and narrow, wicked long too. Wait, there were six of them. Six? No way. I’d never seen the six-clawed beast before—no one had, as far as I knew—only heard tell. This was definitely experimental!
Holy crap. My chest thundered. It wasn’t safe here. But the dog’s pulse... If Bruce was alive, I had to save him, at least try... It was my fault he’d escaped. I retracted my claws, as far as they’d go, and put my fingers under his jaw, holding my breath. Come on, Bruce, come on!
No pulse, nothing. Pressing harder and harder, my fingers went numb, desperate to find a pulse. Damnit, Bruce. My claws scraped his clammy skin as his body cooled.
Standing, my knees buckled, body shaking. I hadn’t realized how scared I was, or how dark it had gotten. Without wolfish eyes, I wouldn’t have been able to see anything. Even so, everything beyond thirty meters was black.
My fur tingled and gut twitched. Something was approaching. Crunch. A twig broke. A loud THUD.
I sprinted all the way home—all thirty minutes—not stopping until the door was slammed shut and locked behind me.
Mom jumped up from our little kitchen table, rattled. Her brown eyes were wide with startled fear bordering on anger, her wiry body tense.
Bent over, panting, hands on my knees, I let out a deep breath. Another. My heart was exploding in my chest, lungs about to burst. What was I thinking? Alone, at night...
Bleary-eyed, his dark hair disheveled, my brother Vynce opened the flimsy door of our joint sleeping room, careful not to wake Elly. “What happened to you?” he joked—like always—to hide his unease as he shifted from side-to-side. “You see a ghost, or a cop?”
“Is everything okay, baby?” Worry lines creased Mom’s normally confident face at the mention of the corrupt police force. She wrapped the ratty light blue bathrobe tighter and crossed the makeshift living room in an instant. “Did you find—”
“Bruce is dead!” I burst out. “Something killed him.”
“Hold on, what happened?” Her eyes narrowed as her furry face darkened. “Are you okay? Where’s the dog?”
“I told you, he’s dead.” Jeez, I was shaking. Covered in goosebumps, I replayed the scene in my head. For once, my fur wasn’t warm enough. “In the forest. Whatever it was ripped his leg clean off and sliced open his side. Six claw marks. Six!”
“My god!” She covered her mouth, and her claws shot out involuntarily. A raw, animal fear I’d never seen flickered across her face as she threw her arms around me. “Are you okay, baby?”
No, not even close.
“Awesome!” Vynce flashed his fangs, and put his arm around me. “Did you see—”
“Shut up, Vynce!” Mom barked. “Go back to bed. No, on second thought, go get Mr. C. Tell him what happened. Put on your jacket and bring your wristband. Ping me when you get there.”
He grumbled, scratching his ‘tough guy’ beard as he slumped away.
“Now, Raek, tell me everything.”
After I’d finished, Mom sighed. I couldn’t believe she’d stayed quiet the entire time. That was a bad sign. It also meant she believed me, which was good. I got mixed up in stuff a lot, even once with a pair of emulate elites after she’d pulled me from soccer to focus on school—damned immortals. She didn’t always believe me, didn’t realize I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ten minutes later, the door flew open. It was Vynce, Mr. C on his heels, his wiry body rigid. Here we go...
“Where’s Bruce? What happened?” Even in a thick black jacket and denims, Mr. C looked cold, scared, and angry, his hair rumpled, emerald eyes flashing. “Raek?”
“Raek was telling me what happened, Roge,” Mom said, hands on her bony hips. “Sounds like Bruce was attacked.”
The odd-shaped flaky skinscales along Mr. C’s neck flashed burnt crimson, then back to normal. You’d miss it if you blinked. But I’d seen it. I was positive. My stomach tightened. This was all my fault. If I hadn’t jumped the fence...
“I am so sorry, Mr. C,” I sputtered. “I was too scared to carry him back. I... It was dark. There was blood everywhere.”
“It is okay, Raek.” He gritted his teeth. “You did the right thing. I’d never risk a boy’s life for a mutt. Your brother tells me there were claw marks. Six of ’em. Are you sure?”
I flinched. Of course I’m sure. “I can take you back there if you want. Do you think it’s—”
“Shhh! Let’s not speculate until we know more.” He gave me a serious look that stopped me dead. “Wouldn’t want to start a panic. I’ll be back at first light. You, Raek, and you, Vynce.” He looked at us and his face hardened. “I am going to need your help. Raek has some of the sharpest eyes and ears in town. I’ll grab Merck and his son Roderik in case there’s trouble. They’re bearish boys, brutes in a fight.”
Made sense he’d bring his Resistance buddy. It took a special breed to stand up to the vicious Global Democratic Republic, or GDR as we liked to call the BS world government. We’d had two executed in town almost a year to the day.
With that, he said goodnight and headed out.
Sleep? How could anyone think of sleep at a time like this? Vynce and I were wired and stayed up late, hushed whispers and dark tales.