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“Peregoy’s Wolves” by Nancy Kress


As soon as he emerged from his cabin, Jedson saw the girl. At first she was just a blur of red at the base of the snowy mountain on the western side of the small valley. He blinked on visual augmentation and there she was, dressed in a crimson thinsuit so form-fitting that it didn’t look warm enough. He knew it was, and what she was. Her shuttle must have come down somewhere in the trees, and they must have figured out tech to make the landing silent.

She was the first person he’d seen in seven or eight years.

He stood staring, an old man in a ragged parka, boots patched with pieces of other boots, a pail dangling from his hand. He needed clean snow to melt. Last night a fresh fall had covered the heavy, crunchy snow on slopes and valley. Also, he’d hoped to catch another glimpse of the young wolf he’d spotted at dawn. The girl stood nearly where the wolf had been, as if in mythic transformation.

“Hello,” she said, and her voice sounded at normal volume right before him, materializing in the vapor from his breath. More new tech.

“Hello.” His own voice, so long unused, sounded scratchy. Could she hear him?

She could. “Who are you?”

He debated giving his name, but could see no reason not to. In a sudden spirit of mockery he said, “Ethan Louis Jedson III. Who are you?”

“Mary.”

No surname. Significant? He said, “From which of the Three Worlds?”

“Mary Peregoy.”

He hadn’t expected that, and looked more closely at the girl.

Tall, slim, with brown curls cascading from under her hood and over the shoulders of the thinsuit. She looked in her early twenties but could be much older; even Jedson, who hadn’t left the Arctic in twenty years, knew about rejuv treatments. He’d been fifteen when the last colony ship left the ruined Earth. In the fifty-five years since, he’d picked up some news from orbital-monitor chatter, but his equipment failed decades ago. Still, he knew that one of the three worlds reachable from Earth by the alien gate had been claimed, settled, and ruled by the powerful Peregoy family.

“Why are you here, Mary Peregoy? Curiosity? Environmental study? Romantic nostalgia?”

She laughed, and in the pleasant chuckle Jedson heard the painful echo of his wife, dead decades ago in one of the bio-wars. He banished the memory instantly. Memories weakened him.

Mary said, “Romantic nostalgia over this place? Not likely.”

And yet “this place,” which once had had a name in what had once been northern Alaska, was the best that Earth could still offer. Jedson, and the surviving wildlife, could scrape out subsistence here, as no one could do in the howling deserts of the middle latitudes, where on a summer day the temperature could reach 150 degrees and the dust storms 100 miles per hour. She knew all that, of course she did.

He repeated, “Why are you here?”

“’Environmental study’ is close enough. Why are you here, Dr. Jedson?”

So she had ocular data access without even raising a screen. Envy stabbed him. He said dryly, “Environmental study.”

“That wasn’t your field.”

“No. But it is now.”

She chuckled again, and this time he felt neither pain nor envy. Her body had shifted slightly and he saw the weapon strapped to her back. A precaution? Or . . .

She said, “You’ve survived here alone for . . . how long?”

“Twenty years.”

“In this same place?”

“Yes. You’re seeing it in winter. It’s different in summer.”

“Better?”

“Worse. Insects, temperatures, the constant risk of fires. But you already know that from orbital monitoring, don’t you?”

She ignored the question. “Why didn’t you go to one of the enclaves? There are a few left, struggling along. You’re an educated man, Dr. Jedson, and an enclave would at least have some minimal civilization.”

“I didn’t want to live caged in a mostly underground enclave.”

“So instead you live in a this barely surviving wilderness.”

“Yes. What are you looking for, Mary?”

“Do you count all the game? Catalogue plants? Accumulate data on what survived climate change and biowars?”

“I do.”

“And what will you do with all your data? If you like, I can take it back to the Eight Worlds, if you have a means to upload it to my shuttle.”

“I don’t. It’s on paper.” Preciously hoarded paper, covered with the tiniest possible writing, and still the paper had run out a year ago. He did not say that. “So there are eight settled worlds now?”

“Yes. More stargates were discovered since your time.”

As if his time was over. Well, it nearly was. He said, “If you come down to my cabin, I can give you the papers.” The chance almost took his breath away. To get his data to other scientists, no matter how different their training or mind-set had become in the hundred years since the Great Escape began . . . a chance he’d never dared hope for.

But Mary laughed again, and this time it was not a pleasant chuckle. “Come to your cabin, where you can try to kill and rob me? I don’t think so.”

Which told him all he needed to know about her.

He said, “You possess nothing I want.”

Her mouth pursed in disbelief. His own expression must have reacted to that, because she said, “You have visual augmentation.”

“As do you.”

She shrugged: Of course.

Somewhere to the east, a wolf howled, probably the same one Jedson had seen at dawn today, twilight yesterday. This time, however, there was an answering call. The girl’s entire body stiffened and she unsheathed her weapon.

Jedson said, “That’s not necessary. The wolves won’t attack you.”

“Are they a pack?”

“I haven’t seen a wolf pack here in years. But I think that call-and-response is an attempt to form one.”

“I thought wolves always lived in packs. Don’t those two have a pack already?”

“My guess is that they’re dispersers. Leaving packs too big to include them and looking to mate.” February, breeding time.

“I see,” Mary said. But she kept hold of the rifle and looked speculatively in the direction of the first wolf call. Her body shifted again and her lips curved faintly upward.

No. No no no.

“Excuse me a minute,” Jedson said. “An old man’s urinary tract.” He put down the still empty pail, went into the cabin, and took down his rifle. There were fewer than a thousand bullets left, and no more coming, ever. Jedson had served in the National Guard, back when there was both a nation and anything to guard. He had killed, during the Seattle Food Riots. A long time ago, and even as a young soldier he’d hated killing. But he was not going to let some touristy, would-be game hunter get cheap thrills from shooting one of the few remaining large mammals on—as far as he knew—the entire planet.

He went outside and aimed the rifle at Mary. She smiled. “You’re out of range, Doctor. Do you think I didn’t data-check on that rifle the second you opened the cabin door?”

God, how fast was her data retrieval?

She went on, “To hit me at this range, you’d have to be a phenomenal shot. And anyway, I’m not going to kill your wolves. That’s not why I’m here.” A drone cleared the ridge, undoubtedly launched from the shuttle. Small, disc-shaped, featureless, it hovered over Mary’s head like a detached silver halo.

Jedson said, “You’re going to tranquilize and capture the wolves. Or at least, you think you can.”

“I can. You have no idea how the tech has improved since your day.”

“Why capture wolves?”

“Sloan Peregoy wants them. He’s the CEO of New California now. The Peregoy family—”

“I know who they are.” Or were, anyway. One of the three unimaginably rich people who’d first wrecked Earth and then fled it during the Great Escape, taking their families and hangers-on and businesses and respective cultures with them. Samuel Peregoy, Kezia Landry, Patrick Fenton. When Jedson was a child, growing up between the feedback loops of run-away climate change and the stupid tragedy of biowarfare, everybody knew those three despised and worshipped and envied names.

He tried to keep his voice steady. “Why would this Sloan Peregoy want wolves?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s my job to go get them.”

“And you always do your job.”

“I do.” She smiled again and he saw that he’d been wrong, misled by rejuv tech. This was no young girl; she was an experienced and cynical woman. “And I do my job well, including prep. I know there’s no elk or bison or caribou left and the wolves eat mice and insects and pretty much anything else they can find. I know their denning and marking and hunting habits. I know what diseases they get, or used to get.”

“You don’t know as much as you think you do. Wolves die in captivity.”

“No, they don’t. But even if this pair does die, Director Sloan is prepared to create clones from their DNA, carried to term by dogs. You don’t have any dogs left, do you? But there are dogs on New California. I myself have a pink toy poodle. Very cute.”

She was taunting him. Jedson said, “Wolves need freedom.”

Mary said, “Really? You’re a proponent of unrestricted freedom? That’s what got Earth into this dismal state in the first place. Everybody free to wage the war of all against all. We don’t permit that on New California.”

“Freedom didn’t wreck Earth. Unbridled technology did. Your New California would be an alien environment to wolves. Different microbes, different food, different ecology.”

“We have techniques for microbe alteration and we breed mice brought from Earth. Sloan will construct an artificial ecology for the wolves.”

“An alien cage.”

“This northern ecology of yours won’t last much longer. The sixth extinction is well underway, you know that. So is it better for these wolves, or their clones, to live in an alien cage and flourish or to die undernourished and ill here?”

The old argument, as old as the walled cities of Sumer: safety or freedom?

Stubbornly, he repeated, “These wolves will die if you take them to New California.”

She shrugged. “Maybe. As I said, we know a lot about wolves. What I didn’t know about was you. I’ll make you a proposition.”

Jedson said nothing.

“You were a noted wildlife biologist. You have a lot of first-hand information, on those papers you mentioned and in your head, information that our scientists would like to have. Put down your antiquated rifle, take off your boots and parka, and walk toward me. You won’t freeze in that short a time. I’ll tanglefoam you, bring you aboard the shuttle, and we’ll capture the wolves together. Then I’ll take you with me to a better life on New California. I have no reason to want you dead, Dr. Jedson. You must know that.”

He did know it. He was too irrelevant to her, to the worlds beyond the gates, to kill.

When Jedson didn’t answer, she added, a bit impatiently, “It’s a generous offer. Earth emigration was officially closed decades ago.”

“And you have enough standing to flout that decree. Sloan Peregoy must want those wolves pretty badly. Thank you, but no.”

Silence, before she said, “You’re a fool, Doctor.”

“Oh, for my entire life, so why stop now.”

At her smile, her first without sarcasm or condescension, he thought, Once I would have liked her, even been attracted to her. The thought was unsettling.

The drone stopped hovering and flew east. Despite himself, Jedson said, “What will it do?”

“Shoot them with tranquilizers and then drop a net over them, singly or together. There’s a cage prepared on the shuttle.”

He pictured it, and felt sickened.

They stood there in the snow, facing each other across the small valley, Mary’s crimson thinsuit glowing all the more brightly as the sun rose higher. Behind her, the mountain loomed white—but for how much longer? Jedson had hoped that Arctic snow in winter would last his lifetime. But, then, both had already continued longer than he’d expected.

Mary’s gaze followed the drone.

#

He could not stand outside, watching, the whole day.

He could not hike around looking for the wolves; the drone would follow him and anyway, what good would it do? Jedson busied himself with things he could not concentrate on. Then, in the late afternoon, he snowshoed a long circuitous route partway up the western mountain and then down again, sneaking up on the shuttle to see if it was still there. It was.

Her voice came from the hulk of gleaming metal. “The drone didn’t find them.”

“Not a very intelligent drone.”

“I knew wolves were mostly nocturnal, but I read that they also will hunt by day.”

“If they have to,” he said, “and aren’t preoccupied with mating.”

“My offer still stands, Dr. Jedson.”

“So does my answer.”

His muscles ached from his calves clear up to the base of his skull. The trip back to the cabin was hard, and he had to rest often, leaning on a stick. He was too old for this.

But at twilight he heard a wolf again. Not a call-and-response; this was different. The male was establishing territory, warning off all other canines: This area has been claimed. Jedson would have bet there were no other canines to warn, not jackals nor coyotes nor other wolves, within fifty miles. But the atavistic territorial impulse continued: Mine, mine, mine. Hunting grounds, planets.

The howl sounded again, closer.

He threw on his parka and rushed out of the cabin. The wolves were crossing the ridge line to the east, lit by the dying sun and waxing moon. Mary was not visible. But the drone was, driving forward from above the trees on the western slope. The wolves started to run, two gray shapes against the snow. Jedson blinked on augmented vision.

The male, his large head carried at the same height as his sloping back, loped along on powerful legs. Jedson’s heart hurt at the female’s fur patchy with sarcoptic mange, and at how skinny she was. A low-ranking member in her old pack.

The drone dropped low enough for the male to turn, raise his head, and snarl, teeth bared. It made no difference, of course. Jedson didn’t see the tranquilizer darts, just the two animals dropping onto the snow as the sun sank below the western mountaintop. The drone hovered for a few minutes above the prone bodies, making sure they weren’t moving. Then the net shot out from the belly of the drone and enveloped the animals. How did its filaments, which Jedson could barely make out in the dying light, get under the wolves’ bellies? More technology that Jedson would never understand.

The drone lifted and, more slowly than Jedson would have dared hope, began ferrying its quiescent weight across the valley.

He did not have much time.

His cabin stood halfway between the drone and the shuttle. He ran, falling into snow, getting up again, too driven to feel the cold. The valley darkened with February night and, despite the half moon, he needed his ancient headlamp. Faster . . . faster . . . he could go no faster. He was an old man, and the drone was state-of-the-art Peregoy technology from the Three—no, Eight now—Worlds beyond the stars. The drone vanished behind the trees, easily beating him to the shuttle.

How long would it take her to get the wolves aboard, untangled from the net, and into their cage? Would she give them some drug, hidden in the kind of meat they had not tasted their entire scrawny lives, to keep them calm on the journey? Maybe the tranquilizer would wear off too soon, while she was still handling them, and one or both would attack her. Maybe.

He knew that would not happen.

Finally, in near-darkness, he came in sight of the shuttle. Now he turned to his second fear: what if his explosive had decayed over time? Much, much time. He didn’t know, and for so long he’d had no way to find out. No military manuals, no internet.

Jedson stood a quarter mile from the shuttle. He pressed the detonator. You don’t know as much as you think you do, he’d said to Mary Peregoy. But, then, who did?

She didn’t know anything about kinds of snow, how it fell, accumulated, moved. New California, Jedson had read, had no axial tilt. No seasons.

The explosion split the gloom, sound without light. The snow on the mountain began to slide. It made its own roar as the avalanche gathered momentum. Jedson had been careful where he’d placed the munition. Huge flaky clouds, ghostly white in the moonlight, barreled down the mountain a safe distance from the shuttle.

The door flung open and Mary leaned out, her lovely face contorted in fear. Had she ever thought how afraid the wolves must have been of the drone? The thought strengthened Jedson enough to raise his rifle, even as his mind screamed, I can’t I can’t.

He did. His first shot took her in the breast, and he knew he wouldn’t need a second. The top of her body fell backward into the shuttle but then, because she’d been leaning so far forward toward the source of the noise, the center of gravity that was her rump slid forward and her she slid out of the open door, down three shallow steps, and halfway into the snow, smearing blood behind her from the exit would.

Jedson moved slowly forward. If there had been any other way . . .

He hadn’t been able to find one.

She lay face-up, eyes open, dressed in something women must sleep in now, flimsy white pants and short-sleeved top. Water froze on Jedson’s eyelids. He reached down to move her off the steps so he could climb them and free the wolves.

The second he pulled her off the steps, the shuttle door closed. The steps retracted. A moment later, the craft began to hum.

“No!”

But there was nothing he could do. She’d programmed it to launch automatically if she couldn’t launch it, if her mission was unsuccessful and herself dead. A report back to whoever was supposed to be informed of the outcome, maybe Sloan Peregoy himself. Jedson had not anticipated that. He had not known enough about the tech of her world.

He watched the shuttle rise from the ruined planet toward the unseen gate orbiting somewhere near the moon, the gate that would take the wolves to the stars.

He would never know what happened to them.

#

It was hard work to drag her body, wrapped in a blanket already wet from Jedson’s flailing in the snow, across the valley. In the light from his headlamp, the valley seemed to grow wider and wider. Eventually, exhausted and soaked and freezing despite the effort, he brought her inside, where animals could not tear at her flesh. Then he stripped off everything and collapsed onto his bed.

In the first light of morning, he buried her a few hundred yards from the cabin, in a patch of sunlit dirt already free of snow. Even ten years ago, his shovel would have hit permafrost a few feet down. Not now.

In a place like this, two hundred years ago, had been found the oldest known wolf fossil, a tooth a million years old. Three hundred years ago, there had still been 10,000 wolves in Alaska and 60,000 in Canada. In ancient Greece, wolves had been associated with Apollo, god of light and order. In the Pawnee creation myth, the wolf was the first animal brought to Earth. Wolves were survivors.

But—

His shovel hit a rock. Too tired to move it immediately, Jedson leaned on his shovel, panting. An old Inuit song came to him:

“I think over again

My small adventures, my fears,

Those small ones that seemed so big

For all the vital things I had to get and to reach—

And yet there is only one great thing:

To live and see the great day that dawns

And the light that fills the world.”

Jedson heaved the rock out of the hole, dug the grave deeper, and lowered Mary Peregoy into it. In another two or three hundred thousand years would come another dawn, another great light. Geologic weathering, cold-water absorption of CO, and a host of other slow, slow processes would bring Earth’s climate to a new equilibrium. The planet, too, was a survivor.

And humanity, if it still existed, might return to Earth. Jedson didn’t believe they would bring wolves back with them, but maybe he was wrong.

He hoped so.



Copyright © 2020 Nancy Kress


This story is set in the world of Nancy Kress’s novel The Eleventh Gate, out from Baen Books in May 2020. She is the author of thirty-three books, including twenty-six novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and has been translated into two dozen languages, including Klingon. In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues, including a visiting lectureship at the University of Leipzig, a 2017 writing class in Beijing, and the annual intensive workshop Taos Toolbox, which she teaches every summer with Walter Jon Williams.