Mike Scantlebury - Science Fiction
 
   

"THE BEAT OF THE WOLF'S DYING HEART"

P a r t O n e

LIONS IN THE STREETS

Chapter One

The old man was on the other side of the derelict street, about sixty metres in front of me, and the wolf was twenty metres behind him, gaining fast. It wasn't that the thing was going particularly quickly, just loping easy and relaxed, in that way they have these days when they know the quarry is as good as theirs.

The old guy looked to be suffering, staggering from side to a side, one hand clutched to his chest like he was in real pain. He must have been tired. If he was younger and fitter, he could have turned, snapped off a few shots, and probably got it before it got him. That's what I would have done. I've learned never to let animals chase me, it's too dangerous, but I guessed something must have made him panic, otherwise he would have stood his ground. The thing could sense that, of course, which is why it chose to chase him.

Well, I remember thinking, there we go: the animal has more brains than the man. But they have, these days: they are still developing, while we humans stand still....

I'd seen plenty of old ones taken that way, of course, too stupid or too feeble to be able to look after themselves. I wouldn't have used up much sympathy, or taken time out from my urgent mission to waste on the problem, if it didn't just happen that the wolf was the one beast in the whole painful menagerie that made me want to kill it. As often and as crudely as possible.

I knew I hated them, with the kind of pure white loathing that kept me awake at night and gave me a strange sort of pleasure to revel in it, a curious kind of sexual ecstasy that made me happy to see them dead. Maybe, looking back on it, it was something to do with the way one of them took my cousin Ben when I was younger, but that's material for a psych computer's lazy afternoon's musings; I never had the time to worry about it in my job. I only knew what a wolf meant to me, and that's a target and a challenge. Here was both: as a target, it was right in front of me, and just begging to die. As a challenge, there was the factor of the old guy, to complicate the kill; he was so unsteady, lurching so unexpectedly from side to side, he was liable to stagger into my sights. It wasn't going to be easy. I pride myself on a neat job: I remember wondering if it could be done....

I couldn't resist it. Shrugging my shoulders, I decided that my other job, the 'urgent' assignment, would have to wait.

The pair were diagonally opposite me then, and getting further away all the time. That meant the angle was getting smaller, so I couldn't risk a shot without endangering the man as well. Still, I knew I'd have to act fast, whatever happened, as the wolf was gaining with every stride. It never bothered me much to think about those things, and I was running before you could say I'd really made up a plan.

It was a wide, paved avenue we were on, but the trees were long gone, and the houses and apartments littering either side were rotten and derelict. A succession of little streets ran off on either side, in between the blocks. I'd just come down one, on my way across the sector and out to Old Town. The old grandee was approaching the corner of a street now, and for a moment it looked like the beast might leap and pull him down before he reached it, but as long as that didn't happen, I thought I might just have a chance. I was counting on the man to do something stupid: that was the only way I could think of to save his life.

I was racing up my side, the near pavement, but abruptly dived across the street in a series of huge bounds and flung myself down onto the other pavement. I came up short against a dirty, cracked plate-glass shop window. I pulled my gun as I landed and pushed it in front of me. Now in my favourite position, full-length, with my legs out and braced against the ground, and with my elbows solid on the cold ground, I levelled the gun and waited. The old man reached the corner and hesitated. This was it: if he went straight on, my opportunity was gone and he was dead. He turned the corner, and disappeared from view.

That left the wolf in the open for a split-second, as it slipped and changed direction. The guy couldn't be seen: he was shielded by the brick wall. I let the thing slip into my sights and squeezed the trigger.

The heavy calibre bullet lifted it and tumbled it over, but I saw the movement and felt the gun buck in my hand before I heard the echo of my shot, the yelp of pain or the shout of shock and surprise from the old man; all these followed. Almost at once, the wolf was on its back in the gutter, thrashing about and trying to get up. Even from that distance I could see that it wasn't going to manage it, and took my time about getting to my feet and checking my gun. I was careful that there was another bullet ready in the chamber before moving off, and looked carefully up and down the street. Animals know what a shot means these days, and sometimes they come fast and sometimes they amble, but there's always something that turns up to see if there's anything left for supper.

I knew that boulevard wasn't the place to stick around in, when the scavengers started to come crawling by.

I walked up. If that wolf had moved at all I would have given it another blast without a thought, but when I reached it, I saw that it wasn't going anywhere; the slug had caught it to the left of the tail and gone straight through, leaving a gaping wound on its right side, with bits of stomach and nasty little pieces of digestive system draining out. Still, it wouldn't die, but lay there whimpering like a domesticated dog, and feebly turning its head to lick at its damaged side.

I suppose I must have felt the usual amount of satisfaction to see it suffer, but it was my kill and my responsibility to finish it off. Like I said, I always liked to keep things tidy.

It wasn't worth wasting another bullet on it, so I put my gun back in its shoulder rig and hooked it into place. I leaned over and took hold of the wolf's back legs. It looked young, yet lean and strong like any growing puppy, and was a dead weight as I pulled. It hardly had the strength to lift its head, but still it tried to snap at me. A real fighter.

I tensed for a moment, then heaved and swung with all the energy I could muster, and pulled the thing round in a full arc, like I'd seen those hammer throwers do at the old Olympic games. Sure enough, it came up high and wide, and was at shoulder height as I turned the full circle and let it go into the wall. Its skull flattened with a dull thud, and all that was left slid to the ground in a mess of blood and bone.

It was dead.

I wiped my hands on the rough fur of its back and tried not to breathe in. The stench of death can be overpowering.

It had to go.

I reached for a paw, but the legs were doubled under it and I couldn't get a grip; I settled for a firm hold on the tail. Tugging, straining backward, I got it sliding after me in a wake of juice and gore, and crunched it down off the pavement and on over the road. There were a cluster of empty houses and shops there, not as bad as the rest; the doors and windows were missing, but the shells were intact. They had been completely gutted, of course, and the house nearest me had its floorboards ripped up, so that, from the street you could see the cellar, three metres down. I hauled the body up to the door, and rolled it over with an enormous effort. There was a lot of satisfaction in hearing it slam onto the concrete below. It would be hard to get to, down there; I was hoping that anything that came along would be so tempted by the trail of blood and the promise of the carcase, but would have such trouble trying to reach it, they wouldn't have much energy or interest left for finding and tracking our human spoor.

When I'd finished and gone back across the road, I found the old man curled up in a doorway, his shoulder resting on the wood and his head slumped forward. Looking at him, I thought at first that he might be hurt; I could hear his laboured breathing as I approached, but guessed that he was just exhausted by his recent mad dash to escape.

I tried to help him to his feet, but he fought my arm away.

"Leave me, leave me," he groaned, his voice harsh and throaty. "I might as well be dead!"

"Father, you sure will be if you stay here," I answered back. "All sorts of animals will be along in a minute, as soon as they smell the blood."

"Soon? I'll be dead soon. No doubt about that. I'm moving towards it with every step."

"And I'm moving towards Old Town," I snapped. "You can come along with me, and maybe I'll find time to protect you. But you'll have to keep up."

"I'm so tired," he whispered. "All I want to do is rest."

"You can do that anywhere," I said. "Not here."

He was feeling pretty sorry for himself, and it was half in me to leave him, but a certain amount of pride was at work: I'd just saved him from death, and I didn't like to see a second chance of it getting to him that quick.

He protested a bit more, but eventually I got him to his feet anyway and began pushing him down the side-street, away from where I'd come from, the Depot and its tower, and on down towards the river and the Town.

After a time the houses stopped, and there was just a maze of low walls overgrown with bushes and creepers: all that remained of demolished buildings. I sat him on one wall while I had a look in, but there was nothing of danger there, so I pulled him in over the wall and plumped him down on a grassy patch. We were invisible from the road and the wind was blowing our way, so I figured we were pretty safe for the moment. At least, from anything with a sense of smell. I wasn't so confident about being able to outwit human trackers, and, in my job, that was something I always had to beware of...

I poked my head over the wall and, looking right, saw, a hundred metres down, the end of the street we had just left: there was nothing in sight as yet. That would have been fine, but for this strange feeling I'd had for the last mile, that I was being followed. It was nothing I could be sure about, but over the years I've learned to trust my instincts, and something was telling me pretty insistently that there was somebody on my trail.

I looked again. I couldn't see anyone.

I looked behind us then, and saw a long open space flanked by garbage dumps and a clustered, low-rise apartment block in the distance. Nothing unusual in that; there were plenty of blocks just the same in this part of the country. But it was one more place I'd have to check if I was going to find the people I was looking for. I made the decision to aim over that way.

In the opposite direction, looking round, I saw the long, bright line of a Tube glinting in the late afternoon sun; it led straight down to the heat haze of the nearest Old Town, in shadow, near the horizon. On the extreme left I could see the stubby bulk of their dark tower. It looked a long way off, and I was rapidly losing all hope of reaching there before dark.

Still, we seemed safe enough where we were, and could rest up for a while. I was glad to feel the reassuring weight of my gun, nestling under my arm.

I turned to watch the old man again. He busily took his jacket off and rested it on one knee. He lifted a hand to wipe his damp forehead; he was sweating freely, and still breathing hard. I didn't like the situation: he was beginning to look like a responsibility.

I demanded gruffly: "What are you out this time of the evening for, anyway? It'll be dark soon, and then an old one like you will have no chance."

"I can't go on hiding for ever," he muttered. He betrayed a rich and well-educated voice. He was getting his breath back, slowly, and, but for that slight wheeze, now seemed quite calm. "Man was born to die," he said, as though it was a quote, "and my time has surely come. Anytime now: it doesn't matter when."

So that was it. He was old and he'd come to realise it. I thought I could guess the rest.

"Well, I've met some people like you," I said, trying not to sound as callous as I felt. "My uncle for one: my aunt got bitten by a snake and he was never the same after that. Used to take terrible chances, but didn't care, you see, whether he lived or died. Said he had awful nightmares, but wouldn't talk about them. Went out one day and left me and my sister alone. Didn't come back. He was never seen again. Usual sort of thing." It happened all the time.

He looked at me then, as if with interest.

"What do they call you, boy?" he asked seriously.

I laughed. It was time to put on a front.

"My real name or my given name? I was born Alan, but I was named 'Wild Dog' at the springing season. My friends call me that," I said, letting pride into my voice.

"So you must be a fighter," he said heavily, and his eyes glinted with unmistakable scorn.

"Nothing gets past me," I grinned, slipping into the part as easily as ever. "I spent a few years with the River People when I was teenage, and they taught me a lot. They don't like to rely on the products of machinery, but make their own weapons. They showed me how to kill with my hands, and how to track and how to hunt. I've been living on my own for the last year, since I lost my sister...." Or two years. Or four, according to whom I'm telling the tale.

He was quiet for a while, and looked strangely upset. I listened to the hum of the insects and waited for a response. A flight of small birds winged lazily overhead, drifting down towards the Tube and the river.

"Wild dogs haven't got this far north yet," he said at last, as if trying to break the silence. Maybe, I thought, he's trying to get through; perhaps he has something to say.

He was old and gaunt, and reminded me a little of Rogue Deer, my teacher, but without the wariness and the sharp eyes. I felt a little sorry for him; nobody from the River would have allowed themselves to get this old and this full of despair. His grey eyebrows curled sadly over his face and a rivulet of sweat was working its way down to his nose.

"Some say there isn't enough game in these parts to support them," I said, the words spilling out. The thing had occured to me now, that he might be a liability, and I was wondering how to say it to him. I must have known, I suppose, that if I left him, in this morose and doom-laden condition, that it was as good as a death sentence.

I remember thinking at the time: He doesn't deserve it.

I said: "That shouldn't be a problem: they eat anything, and nothing scares them. They live in a pack, but they're very independent. They never give up: once they're onto a quarry they never leave it till it's down and they've eaten their fill. Some call them vicious, but they're just living, the only way they know how; they have to eat."

He sighed, and made an effort to speak. "You enjoy the hunt, eh?" he said. He stood up abruptly, and his short coat fell onto the ground. He stared around, and said, with disgust evident in his tone: "It wasn't always like this, you know. Once these houses were full of happy people."

I played my part to the full. "Old stories," I scoffed. "We have to adapt. The wild dogs will, and someday they'll be living in this area. Some say the climate won't suit them, but they'll change, they'll adapt: you'll see. And they'll stay, once they're here."

"I hope I won't live to see it," he muttered, and went on evenly, his voice low and lecturing: "Alan, listen to me: the country has changed, even in my lifetime. You must have seen it, even you. Answer me truthfully: are you glad to be alive in this world of ours?"

"Why shouldn't I be?"

"With danger lurking behind every bush? No safety except in the Protected Settlements? Wild animals roaming the old city streets?"

I scoffed. "If you want to be safe, always travel by Tube," I said. "You need never see the wild ways if you stick to the safety of the stations and the Old Towns. Look," I added cagily, trying to judge my response. "It must have been bleak before such a time. It's exciting now. One day is never the same as the next. You never know what you're going to run into, and you have to be ready, trained and alert. It's the law of the jungle."

"Ah, but it doesn't have to be like this.... It never used to be: animals never came anywhere near the cities once, and these streets were teeming with people. Now all are gone, into the Towns or the Settlements, and nothing's left."

"Nothing but raw Nature," I agreed.

He nodded. "Nature is taking over again," he said.

I grunted: "Today is better." It was an automatic response: it was what all young people were meant to say, as the vidscreens kept reminding us.

It didn't mean anything.

I shook myself. It was getting colder, and the shadows were lengthening. It was time to be be moving on.

I reached down and picked up his coat for him, not thinking. As I did so, I saw that a few things had fallen out of an inside pocket and were lying on the ground. One of them was his Ration Card. He wasn't looking as I scooped it up, so I had time to hold it for an examination of his name and photo. That was a shock. I recognised the name: here was one of the men I had been sent to find.

I talked, to cover my confusion.

Partly, it was caused by the colour of the card, which was brown; that meant it was two seasons out of date. But nobody could live without a current Card. How had he been managing?

The other problem was who I now knew him to be: he was old and feeble, but he must be a Brother. I should have known that, of course. Looking back on it, I'm surprised that I hadn't thought of it before. For who else would risk wandering around the old ruins at that time of the day, without any obvious defence? Unless they knew that they were doomed to die anyway....

C h a p t e r T w o.

I was eager to go: it was getting to feel unsafe in that spot. But I had a job to do, and I knew the regulations backwards and forwards. I knew what the next move was; to confirm identity and look for an opportunity.

After that - execute.


Extract from Mike Hamer's "THE BEAT OF THE WOLF'S DYING HEART". If you want to read more of this story, go to Mike's Business Pages, where you can download the whole of Part One for 99 cents, plus any or all of the other three parts.

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