The Hour of the Wolf



I step off the ship’s landing platform and place my paw in the cold snow. I don’t mind the temperature. I was made for extremes. I continue into the snow, sniffing, watching. There are few smells of note here. There’s too much cold and too much ice for life to thrive.

“Spread out but not too far,” Jenna Haden says from behind me. She’s not giving the order to me, since the humans only see me as a genetically engineered wolf. Smarter than any animal but not on the level of a human being. I am as smart of them, of course, and I’ve known that for a while, yet I lack the ability to communicate it. I cannot speak, and no one taught me to write. I can only listen and try to impress. I’ve made my peace with that.

“Keep your eyes peeled for anything,” Haden adds. “There’s nothing too small to be pointed out.” She’s tall, just over six feet. She’s wrapped up in a heavy coat and a wool mask that covers everything other than her mouth and eyes. She’s fidgeting, maybe from nerves, maybe from the cold. “You don’t appreciate this place until you’re actually out in the climate. We need to find the survivors fast. They won’t last long here.”

“This might as well be a wasteland,” Nyleth says, following Haden out of the craft. Of the five people who make up our squad, Nyleth is the only one who does not have a rifle, which makes sense as Nyleth is not human in the traditional way and therefore not entirely trusted by the others. Like me, Nyleth was developed instead of birthed. Half of Nyleth’s head is shaved, revealing a metallic plate that helps them interface with technology. Their skin is gray, their eyes bright green. Nyleth’s nature is one that has been long debated back home. Others like them were originally referred to as “it,” but this apparently made people uncomfortable, so the term was nixed in favor of the more neutral “they.” Individuals like Nyleth have telepathic abilities, although not to the extent of blatant mind reading, and a level of sensitivity about surroundings that almost, but not quite, matches my own. Perhaps most importantly, modified people like Nyleth can tap into local technology in ways the average computers sometimes struggle with.

“Can you tell if the distress call is from nearby?” Haden asks him.

“No better than I could when we were in our craft.” He stands rigid, not at all affected by the cold. We share that trait, although I don’t know that Nyleth has spared much thought for me or our similarities.

Maria Cerval is next out of the ship, muttering, “This has to be the worst part of the planet.” She’s Haden’s second-in-command. It was she who suggested we go here after our last rescue mission failed. We were supposed to retrieve the crew of a malfunctioning scouting vessel, but, by the time we found it, the craft had become a tomb. We left it there, now a grave instead of a vessel. On our way back to base, we received a distress call consisting of one word: help. Its sender was unknown, but Cerval argued it had to have human origin. What limited extraterrestrial life existed in the galaxy did not seem capable of adapting to English.

“Extraterrestrial life that we know about can’t do it,” Nyleth corrected her. “Who knows what the unknown can do.”

But no one bothered to listen to them.

Now, Cerval looks like she might have regretted that call. She has her rifle slung over her shoulder and her arms crossed. She’s about a foot shorter than Haden, but she has a presence that makes her seem taller. She, too, wears a wool mask; any normal human must if they are outside in a place like this for long. “It must have been a crash landing. No one would voluntarily set down here.”

“I can think of reasons other than crashing,” says Nyleth. “You can get a lot of privacy in a place like this. A great place to hide an unauthorized craft. Perhaps one of Tyrius Incorporated’s. They like to do weapons experiments in this corner of the galaxy.” They snort. “Their own Bikini Atoll.”

“Bikini Atoll?” Cerval asks, an edge in her voice.

“It’s where they tested nuclear bombs,” Nyleth says with a dismissive wave of their hand.

Mark Gramson and Phillipe Reeves, the two junior members of our group, are the last to exit the ship, and they move to the left and right per Haden’s orders. They won’t find anything living. I would have sensed life nearby and given a growl so everyone knew. Sometimes, I get the impression people do things just so they don’t feel helpless.

I continue to move forward, sniffing, listening, doing my own part to not feel useless. My senses are offering me no answers, though, and I feel inadequate. Even on our ship there’s more to smell, more to hear. This place has nothing. I can hear a bird land on the ground a mile away on Earth; either the physics work differently here or it is as much a tomb as the craft we explored.

“Rupert, what do you sense?” Haden asks me. I’m not sure how much of that statement she knows I understand. Perhaps she only suspects I recognize my name and her intonation.

I look back at her and lean down. This means I have nothing to say. Haden just nods in return, looking back to the others. “Form up. We’re moving ahead.”

Gramson and Reeves rejoin us. They’re less talkative than Cerval, who is going on about how our original mission was a waste of time. “Anyone could have figured out that a craft that far out for that long would be filled with the dead. Not exactly a priority, if you ask me. Says a lot about their opinion of us if they were like ‘Yeah, let’s send those idiots.’”

“They wanted a low stakes mission for our friend’s first time,” says Haden.

She’s referring to me. She has no idea that I know.

“There’s technology nearby,” says Nyleth. They halt in their tracks, glancing around. It’s a stance I recognize, one I have when I am picking up a scent of a living creature. “To the east. Slightly to the south. Maybe five degrees south of directly east. Not far. Not far at all.”

Haden points in that direction, nodding at Gramson, who begins a slow walk, scanning the snow for a revelation.

“Is it buried underground?” Haden asks Nyleth.

“I don’t know,” says Nyleth. “But I don’t think so. I can almost see it in my mind.” I notice their mouth curl. Much as they may not want to admit it, I suspect they want to be seen as helpful, just like me.

Haden comes over to me, leans down, and takes me by the collar, so I am looking right at her. I can see her breath in the cold. “Follow along with Gramson, Rupert. Let me know if he misses anything. Go on, boy. You got this.”

I follow Gramson. He seems competent, but, in addition to my advanced eyesight, my height gives an alternate viewpoint. I want to find whatever it is, make everyone happy. It’s a silly urge, but these people are my family now, and I want them to see what I have to offer.

Gramson walks right past it, but I see it. Silver in the ice. Small but sticking up enough that I can spot it. I hurry over and give a quick howl. It comes out louder thanks to the silence of this world. Everyone turns to look at me. Haden hurries over and picks up what I found; it’s a small data chip. I can smell sweat in the air. They have all turned tense. I see Nyleth wince; no doubt, they can sense how eager everyone has become. Perhaps they are overwhelmed by the sudden intensity of emotion.

Haden removes a handheld computer from her pocket and inserts the data chip into it. The chip can hold an infinite amount of information: the written word, the spoken word, video, holographic images. It can have anything and everything.

“Nothing,” Haden mutters.

“What?” Cerval exclaims. “You have to be kidding me.”

“There’s nothing on here,” says Haden. “It must’ve just been dropped by accident.”

 “Guess it shows us we’re on the right track, though,” says Gramson. He’s rubbing his gloved hands together. “Whoever sent that distress signal must have left their craft and walked around. They can’t be too far.”

“Why do you think that?” Nyleth snaps. “They could’ve walked for miles. There’s no reason to assume they must be nearby. They could’ve gone back to their ship and flown off to who knows where. And even if they are nearby, we don’t know in what direction they went. They could’ve gone a mile northeast and we end up going northwest and never spot them. Or, more likely, their decaying bodies. Our ship’s sensors are crap, and we can’t see anything from above thanks to the snow, so this whole thing is pointless.”

“Lovely confidence,” Cerval says to him.

“There’s something to be said for realism,” he shoots back.


“Maybe Rupert can catch their scent,” says Haden. She kneels and holds the data chip in front of me. “See if you can smell anything, Rupe.”

I take several sniffs. No scent. The chip has been left in the snow for too long. I give a whine to let the group know of my defeat. Haden pats my head. “It’s okay, Rupe” she says. The warmth makes me feel a little better. To the group, she announces, “We don’t have a ton of hope, Nyleth is right, but I’m not ready to give up. We can use a win after what happened when we came across the scouts. It’s cold here, but I don’t think there’s anything to fear. If nothing else, the chip gives us a sign we’re not totally off the mark. Someone is here. Maybe we can be that someone’s hero.”


#


We walk until the night arrives. Still no sign of life. I wonder how long they’ll put up with this trek. My fur keeps me warm, but, even with their clothing, I can’t imagine the humans are comfortable. Much as I admire them, and much as I wished they understood my depths, my nature certainly gives me some advantages. There are reasons to find pride in my existence, I think to myself. I am capable and hardy. It’s so pleasant a thought that my tail involuntarily wags.

“Let’s rest,” says Haden, dropping her pack in the snow. “We’ll resume the search in the morning.”

Each of them removes a small box from their packs. The boxes unravel, gradually forming small, insulated bunkers for each person to sleep in. I remain outside, on guard duty. This does not mean I don’t get to sleep, although I don’t need much. My senses are in tune with everything even when I rest; I will perk up at the slightest change in my environment.

I dig a small hole in the snow and nestle into it. I wrap my gray and white tail around my nose, the only part of me that tends to get cold. I try to listen for the voice of this world. It does not speak to me. If anything lives on this planet, I cannot sense it. This means that the people who sent the distress signal are likely dead and that if anything else lives here it is somehow able to avoid detection even from me.

I scan the dark night for hours until I finally fall into a light sleep.

I’m woken by footfalls in the snow. I catch Haden’s scent before I open my eyes. She’s anxious. I stand up and walk to her side. She glances down at me and smiles. “I hate being on a planet,” she tells me. “Always makes me feel trapped. Suffocated. Reminds me of when I was a kid.”

I know she thinks I can barely understand her. I wish there was a way I could let her know I was listening, that I understood she felt grief. I nuzzle her leg with my snout. She pats the back of my head. “You’re a good boy,” she says. “One of a kind, too, did you know that? Maybe they’ll figure out how to make more like you, but I don’t know. People don’t always know what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s awful, but sometimes it results in things like you, Rupe. We’ll see if a mistake happens again. For now, you’re the most special boy in the world.” She pets my ear, and I nuzzle her again before leaning against her leg. We stand together in comfortable silence for some time.


#


Gramson explodes forty minutes after we leave camp. Seconds before he does, I sense heat beneath the ice. I was about to howl when pieces of Gramson landed in front of me. The blood leaks into the snow, the color a blemish after spending twenty-four hours looking at white ground. The smell of burning flesh overwhelms me. I almost vomit.

From behind me, another eruption: Reeves. Pieces of him go flying over my head. It’s hard to process their deaths. Living one moment, eradicated the next.

“Everyone halt!” Haden screams. “It’s a minefield. No one move.”

“What the hell kind of mines are these?” Cerval yells. It’s a good question. Gramson and Reeves did not explode in fire and smoke; it was as if their bodies burst apart like pustules.

“Experimental ones,” Nyleth says. They look around. “Something is wrong here, but, beyond that, I can’t pinpoint it. Whatever mines these are, they’re unusual. They’re not something I understand”

The heat I picked up on must be the mines below. I have a feeling for where they are, and I begin to walk, making my way toward the colder spots.

“Rupert, stop!” Haden yells.

I halt, but I look back with a whine.

“I think he knows how to get out of here,” says Nyleth.

I give a small howl.

“Good catch,” Haden says to Nyleth, who almost smiles. She looks to me. “Smart boy. Go on. Show us the way.”

Now that I’ve picked up on the heat, it’s easy for me to navigate. The others remain concerned; I can smell their sweat, I can feel their muscles tighten. They have to process their companions’ deaths and know that theirs can come at any moment. I am lucky to be able to take my own fate in my hands; they must rely on me, for once.

“Shouldn’t we be going the opposite direction?” Nyleth asks. They keep looking at the ground, waiting for the end.

“I’m not giving up on whoever crashed here,” Haden replies. She doesn’t look down as she walks. She’s put all of her trust in me.

“We just lost two men,” Nyleth says.

Haden takes in a sharp breath. “I know. And if you think I’m going to let their deaths mean nothing then you’re out of your mind.”

“That’s ludicrous thinking.”

“Watch your tone, Nyleth.”

I run around in a circle to indicate that we are out of the minefield. I see Haden relax and then tense up again as the gravity of the situation hits her. “Damn it,” she mutters. Cerval puts a hand on Haden’s shoulder and says something I can’t hear. Haden nods and thanks Cerval. I think Haden is silently crying. I want to go to her, but I do not want to disturb the moment she is having with Cerval.

“Something else is bothering me,” Nyleth says. “Why would they leave an unmarked minefield if they were just experimenting? You’d think they’d be more careful. A smarter assumption might be that the minefield was set up by a hostile presence or that whoever landed here set up the minefield to protect themselves from a hostile presence. Neither are good options.”

“I’ve never seen mines do what they just did,” says Cerval. Her voice sounds weak. She has her hand on her stomach.

“I still think it’s prudent to return to the ship,” says Nyleth. “Whatever happened here might not be something we’re equipped for. Even if we remain on the lookout for mines, who’s to say there aren’t other traps? We’re rescue, not military. This isn’t what we’re cut out for.”

“Getting a larger operation out here could take weeks,” Haden says. She clears her throat. “Whoever sent that distress signal could be dead by then.”

“You’re the empath,” Cerval says to Nyleth. “Can’t you tell us if you sense people in distress?”

“Don’t you think I would’ve mentioned that?” Nyleth snarls. “This place is either vacant or whatever is here has a way of masking itself.” They point to me. “Rupert hasn’t picked up on anything either. So, before you go giving me an attitude, consider that maybe we’re all out of our depth.”

“I didn’t give you an attitude, but I can change that real fast,” says Cerval.

“Cut this out,” Haden orders. “We’re going to continue our search for twenty-four hours. After that, we head back to the ship and report that we need further assistance. That’s my decision. It’s final. I’m not in the mood for pointless bickering. Either say something helpful or keep your mouths shut.” She scratches at her eyes. “I just don’t want to hear anything.”


#


We proceed slowly through the never-ending snow. There is a hint of gray mountains far in the distance, but it is impossible to say how far away they are. I always scout the area ahead, fearing but never finding heat lurking beneath us. No one speaks, which saddens me. The more the group talks, the more I can show how much I understand them. I doubt there will come a day when I am fully appreciated, but this group, especially Haden, can at least get a feel for what I am capable of. I wonder if Nyleth feels the same about themselves. Despite their ability to communicate, in many ways, they are in a worse position than I am. I am seen as cute by humans; Nyleth is not. No matter how much I am condescended to, I am always shown compassion; Nyleth is not. People like Nyleth are generally seen as strange, perhaps even a danger, thanks to their abilities and different appearance.

I doubt the day’s events will change that. Tension leaks out of everyone. The deaths of our two crewmates hangs over us all. I can sense rage beneath the surface of Haden. I wonder who she wants to take it out on. Nyleth? Herself? Me? I didn’t sense the mines soon enough, after all.

I spot movement ahead, something in the snow. I growl. Everyone stops.

There are multiple beings in the distance, all close to the ground, about as large as the average human. I squint, and I see that these beings are indeed humanoid, and they are not just close to the ground. They’re crawling through the snow, their arms thin, their bodies sickly. Skin dangles off their faces. Some of them have gashes in their skin so deep I can see right through to the bone. I count twenty, then thirty, then forty, and I wonder when they’ll stop coming. Maybe they won’t.

Haden and Cerval raise their rifles.

“I’m not sensing a threat,” Nyleth says. “I’m sensing curiosity.”

“Why didn’t you sense them earlier?” Cerval demands.

For a second, Nyleth says nothing. Then, “I’m not sure. It’s like they were all of a sudden just there. I think they decided to allow me to sense them.”

“Then it sounds like they’re a threat to me,” says Cerval.

“If you’re not interested in my advice, don’t ask for it,” Nyleth replies.

“Do not shoot,” Haden tells Cerval. “Let’s not escalate things.”

The closer they come, the more I am surprised by their lack of a scent and how silent their moves are in the snow. Whatever these creatures are, they are experts at managing this terrain. It’s no wonder they were able to appear so suddenly. All of them are dressed in white garb, which would normally act as effective camouflage, but their clothing is ripped and stained with brown and red, although not a blood red. It reminds me of dirt, but I can’t imagine soil being accessible anywhere nearby. Have they traveled from a warmer place on this planet? It would have to have been a long trek.

Their eyes are what arrest me, though. Green and bright. Not human eyes, not at all. I think I am more human than whatever these beings are.

“They’re in my mind,” says Nyleth.

“What?” says Haden. I smell sweat. They’re all scared. I’m scared.

“They’re talking to me,” they say. “I asked them about the distress call. They know about it. Unless I’m misunderstanding them, they’re making quite the claim: they are saying the help call came from them.”

“How is that possible? Are they technologically advanced?”


Nyleth closes their eyes. “This is unusual. They speak only telepathically. I’m trying to respond to them in my head. I’m not sure how they sent us the distress call. They seem to be saying it’s not a problem, but I’m not sure what’s not a problem.”

“Forget about how they sent the message then,” says Haden. “Ask them why they sent it and what happened to our people who landed here.”

Nyleth pauses, their fists opening and closing. “They’re still talking about the distress call. They say we misunderstood its purpose. It was an offer of help, not a cry for it. They want to help us. They say they understand our pain.”

I stare at these creatures in the snow. They’ve stopped moving. Their limbs are rigid, like they are ready to sprint at a second’s notice. All of the beings have their emerald eyes locked on Nyleth. 

“They’re saying they ended up helping a group of people similar to us,” says Nyleth.

“Ask them about the minefield,” Cerval puts in.

Nyleth glares at her but seems to ask, because they answer, “They said it came from the group of people they helped. At first, the other group was scared, but they ended up understanding.” He sighs. “I’m trying to ask them what they mean by help, but they seem unable to communicate it. I’m not even sure how they know our language as well as they seem to. Unless they don’t. Unless my mind is reorganizing it.” He winces. “It’s confusing in here.”

One of the beings rises. Its body twists and turns, as if it’s not used to standing. Cerval puts a bullet through its head. The being drops down to the ground, blood splattering those nearby. None of the others react.

Nyleth screams and grabs his head.

“Hold your fire,” Haden shouts. “They can kill us all.”

“They’re not going to kill us!” Nyleth shouts. “Don’t be idiots.”

“Pin them down on what happened to the others,” Haden commands. “That is a direct order, Nyleth.”

“They can’t explain it! They helped them. That’s all I’m getting. They want to help us, too. That’s what they’re offering. They said they understand us, they understand why we’re all miserable, and they can help us.”

“Why not just put a sign out that says free candy?” asks Cerval.

“You just shot one of them!” screams Nyleth. “And look! They’re not lashing out.”

“Because it’s a trap! Isn’t that obvious?”

I can tell Haden is thinking it over. “Tell them we want to go back to our ship. Let’s see their reaction.”

Nyleth nods. “Okay. Okay, they’re saying they’ll still be here if we change our minds.”

“Then we’re going back,” says Haden.

Nyleth shakes their head in the negative. “I’m not going.”

“What?”

“They offered to help me.” Their face falls for half a second. “No one has ever offered to help me before.” The comment hangs in the air for a bit before they turn to me and ask, “Do you want to come, Rupert? Might be a better place for beings like us.” They smile broadly. I’ve never seen that from Nyleth before. Their teeth are so white. “We can be explorers together.”

The offer astonishes me. I can’t recall anyone asking me my desires before. I never realized how much I wanted that until now.

“He can’t go,” Haden says. Her voice is cold. “You can, but Rupert can’t. It’s out of the question.”

I turn and look at her. I’m so shocked I let out an involuntary whine. I’ve never heard her so authoritarian.

“Why not?” Nyleth asks.

“We need him to get back through the minefield.”

“So, have him guide you back, then let him return. I have a feeling they’ll wait.”

“He’s an animal; he doesn’t care, Nyleth. You’re reading too much into him. Besides, he’s valuable. He’s the only one of his kind.” She shakes her head. “He’s going nowhere. You can go, though.”

I walk to Nyleth and give another whine. I don’t know how to make them understand. I want to go with these curious beings. I need to go.

“Rupert, come,” says Haden.

But no. I’ve seen the possibility of choice. Nothing can be the same again.

“You can come with me if you want, Rupert,” says Nyleth. “I’ll take care of you.”

I nuzzle his leg.

Electricity courses through my collar. I shake and fall to the ground, my body feeling on fire. The shock ends as quickly as it came, but I remain stunned, unable to move. I see Haden, though. She’s holding her handheld computer. Reality hits me. My collar is a shock collar, and Jenna Haden activated it. It never occurred to me that anyone would put something like that on me, that anyone would want to hurt me. Especially not her. Never her.

“Damn,” Nyleth mutters. “What is wrong with people?”

“Rupert,” Haden says. “Come.”

I pick myself up. Everything hurts now. I limp over to Haden, who says, “We’re going, Nyleth. You sure you want to take your chances with those things?”

“Oh, yes,” he replies. “Oh, yes.”

He goes one way, we go the other.


#


We’ve made camp for the night. I can’t sleep. I don’t even bother to put my tail around my nose. I’m barely present. I think about Nyleth, about where those beings took him. Sometimes, I think back to those moments when I was walking away, resisting taking one last glance at the only person who ever viewed me with integrity. I should have looked back, tried to see what I can never have.

Haden comes out in the middle of the night.

“Feeling better after earlier?” she asks me. 

I stare at her.

She pets the top of my head. “You’re a good boy, Rupert.” She keeps petting me. “You’re a good boy. You’ll be happy you’re going home. You’ll see. Your place is not here.”

I stay on the ground. She towers over me.




NewMyths.Com is one of only a few online magazines that continues to pay writers, poets and artists for their contributions.
If you have enjoyed this resource and would like to support
NewMyths.Com, please consider donating a little something.

---   ---
Published By NewMyths.Com - A quarterly ezine by a community of writers, poets and artist. © all rights reserved.
NewMyths.Com is owned and operated by New Myths Publishing and founder, publisher, writer, Scott T. Barnes