From the author: This is a story about what we do to survive, and what we're willing to sacrifice for others.
John’s eyes snap open in the moonlit half-dark. His heart is pounding and his breath comes short. That sound—did he dream it? But no, it comes again: a sharp snap, then a muted metallic clang. Something’s gotten into the refuse bin on the lake side of the house. What still lives in these woods that’s both strong enough and foolish enough to steal a Gray’s garbage?
It could be a bear.
God, he hopes it’s a bear.
John sits up, drops his feet to the floor, and glances over to the big bed. Martok is still sleeping, his great soft body sprawled face-down across the mattress. The Grays are nearly deaf. Martok won’t wake unless John has to use the rifle.
John gets to his feet and pads across the bedroom, slips through the door and out into the hallway. It’s darker here, and he has to run his hand along the wall until he steps out into the marble-tiled foyer. He picks up the ancient bolt-action .30-06 from the umbrella stand in the corner, checks the load, and chambers a round. If it is a bear, he doesn’t want to wind up having to use an empty rifle as a club.
If it’s not a bear?
Best not to think about that.
John walks into the kitchen, rifle held loosely in his left hand. Through the glass doors, he can see where the bin stands against a rotting woodpile, most of the way down to the dock. The lid is propped half-open. He unlatches the door, slides it open and steps out onto the deck. He can see the lid quivering now, as if it’s resting on the back of something moving inside. He hears a soft rustling. Whatever it is, it’s rooting through the garbage, looking for…
What? Food? If it’s a bear, maybe. If it’s not…
John steps to the railing, and brings the rifle to his shoulder.
“Hey,” he says softly. “Come out of there.”
The lid freezes. The rustling stops.
“I have a rifle,” John says. “I can’t miss from this range. Please. Come out, slowly.”
The lid rises a foot or so, hovers, then drops with a clang. John sees his visitor then, her face centered in the rifle’s scope.
It’s not a bear.
It’s a woman.
She’s not creche-bred. John can see that immediately. She’s at least a head taller than he is, and her shoulders are far too broad. Her skin is light brown under a layer of grime. Her hair is a dark, spiky halo around her head.
John’s finger curls lightly around the trigger.
“Oh,” she says. “Hello. I didn’t… I mean… I’m Dana. What’s your name?”
John lifts his eye from the scope. Dana smiles, and takes a hesitant step back from the bin.
It would have been so much better if she were a bear.
“Anyway,” she says. “I’m sorry if I woke you up. I didn’t mean to. If it’s okay, I think I’ll be going now.”
“No,” John says, brings his eye back to the scope and settles the crosshairs on her forehead. “Stay where you are.”
“I’d like to,” Dana says, and takes another slow step backward. “I really would, but…”
“What were you looking for?”
She glances back over her shoulder. John’s finger on the trigger tightens.
“Oh, you know,” she says. “Scrap metal. Maybe some old electronics? Nothing you’d miss.”
“This is Gray territory now,” John says. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“No,” Dana says, then takes a third step, and a fourth. “No, you’re absolutely right.”
She bolts. John tracks her with the rifle, trigger just on the edge of tripping. He knows he should fire. He doesn’t, though. He watches her through the scope, a lump in his throat and an unfamiliar tightness in his belly, until she disappears into the woods.
“You left your bed last night,” Martok rumbles. “Is there something I should know?”
John glances up at his employer—a much nicer word than owner, he thinks—then back down at the path they’re walking. He has the rifle with him, a round still in the chamber.
“There was…” he begins, then hesitates and starts again. “I heard something outside last night. I went out to see what it was. That’s all.”
“I see,” Martok says, and runs one thick, three-fingered hand back over his broad, hairless scalp. “And what was it, this noise? Something to cause you to bring your weapon along with you this morning?”
“I have a job,” John says.
Martok laughs, a low gurgle that has always sounded to John more like suffering than joy.
“You do,” he says. “You are here to watch over me, no? To protect me from the deer and the rabbits?”
He laughs again, lays a hand on John’s shoulder and gives it an almost-painful squeeze.
“There could be more out here than deer and rabbits,” John mutters. He knows Martok is right, though. What’s left on this planet that could hurt a Gray? He’s slow-moving, but Martok weighs nearly a thousand pounds, and his hide is like old leather. Could a bear take him? Maybe, but John doubts one would try.
Dana could hurt him, given the right tools.
“I think there was more than a noise last night,” Martok says. “I think this is why you have your rifle.”
The Gray’s hand is heavy on John’s shoulder. It’s been a long while since Martok has had to discipline him. John very much wants not to be reminded of what that was like.
“There was…” he begins, then coughs to cover his hesitation and starts again. “I mean, I thought I saw something.”
“Something?” John winces as Martok’s grip tightens on his shoulder.
“Someone,” John says. “I thought… it was dark, but…”
“Human eyes and ears are keen, John. This is why we employ you, is it not? What did you see?”
“A woman,” he says. “She was rooting through the refuse bin.”
Martok releases his shoulder. John winces again at the sudden inflow of new blood.
“A human woman? You saw a stray?”
“No,” John says. “Not a stray. She was wild.”
Martok laughs again.
“Wild? No, John. This is not possible.”
John shakes his head.
“She was tall—close to six feet, I think. I could see her head and shoulders over the edge of the bin. Strong, too. She got the lid open by herself.” He looks back at Martok. The Gray has stopped walking, and is watching him through slitted eyes.
“You saw her clearly, then. Why did you not kill her, John?”
John opens his mouth to reply, then sees the darkening of Martok’s face and realizes this answer may mean his life. Martok growls, an almost sub-audible rumble that John feels in his chest, and he has a sudden, crazed urge to turn the rifle on his employer. He shakes his head, horrified at himself for even having the thought.
“Humans,” he says finally. “They don’t live alone. I thought…”
“You thought what?” Martok asks, and takes a slow step toward him.
“I thought if I killed her, we’d never find the others,” John says.
“Hmmm…” Martok growls again, but this time the tone is thoughtful rather than threatening. “You can track her?”
“Yes,” John says, a little too quickly. “I mean, I think so. I intend to try.”
“Yes,” Martok says. “Yes. Do this. This lake is beautiful, no? With development, I anticipate great profit on this purchase. Wild humans, though. Wild humans are dangerous. Find them, John. Find them, and kill them. I cannot have this investment spoiled.”
Martok gives John’s shoulder another squeeze, affectionate rather than painful this time, then turns and continues walking. John closes his eyes and breathes in deep, holds it for a moment, and then lets it out slowly. When he looks up again, Martok has turned down onto the path toward the docks. John shoulders his rifle and follows.
Hunting is easier when the quarry doesn’t understand the methods of the hunter. By the time John sets out after Dana, she’s had time to obscure her trail, and to leave false leads—a broken twig here, a stray footprint there—that make it more difficult to follow her than it would have been to track down the bear he’d been hoping for the night before. Some things, though, are impossible to obscure. John carries a DNA scanner, and Dana has left little bits of herself everywhere she passed. Despite that, it still takes John the better part of a day to reach the point, three miles or so into the woods, where Dana felt safe enough to relax and just walk.
John does not feel safe here. He doesn’t know if Dana lives alone in a treehouse, or with a hundred others in a fortress. He doesn’t know if Dana’s people have spears, or bows, or even guns.
He doesn’t yet know what he’ll do when he finds her.
He knows he doesn’t want to be ambushed, though. He pulls up the hood of his camouflage jacket, zips it around his face, and adjusts the eye-slits until he can see. The material of his clothing bends light in a way he doesn’t entirely understand. He should be the next best thing to invisible now. The ground is soft here, and Dana’s trail is clear. John checks the load on his rifle. Up ahead, a doe saunters out of the trees. She glances toward John, tilts her head to one side, and then bounds away down the trail.
Why did she run? She couldn’t have seen him.
He just has time to wonder at that.
John comes back to consciousness like a drowning man breaking the surface. His eyes snap open and he gasps for air. He’s in a close, dark place that smells of sweat and soil, with a faint undercurrent of blood. His teeth are sore and loose in his jaws, and the back of his head is a dull, throbbing ache. He tries to sit up, but there’s a cord around his neck, holding him fast to the hard-packed dirt floor. His arms are pinioned behind him, numb and bloodless, trapped between his body and the ground. For one terrified moment he imagines himself back in the training creche, awaiting discipline for stealing food, or soiling himself, or speaking out of turn—but no, he’s not a child any longer. He’s an adult now, a bonded employee. If Martok were displeased with him, he’d have simply been killed.
Memory seeps back. He was in the woods. He was following Dana.
It’s possible, he realizes, that he’s not quite as stealthy as he imagined.
John only knows that he’s slept again when he wakes to a flare of light, and then a tug at the cord around his neck. He opens his mouth to speak, but before he can the cord snaps tight, and he’s being hauled across the floor.
“Stop,” a voice says over the rising roar in his ears. “You’ll kill him.”
“Good,” says a second voice. “Save us the trouble later.”
Black spots swim across his vision as John is pulled out into the light. The pressure on the cord eases. He sucks in a gasping breath, then lets it out again in a desperate fit of coughing. Hands grab him by the shoulders and pull him the rest of the way out of what he can see now is a crawl space beneath a low wooden hut that wraps half around the trunk of a massive maple tree.
“Hey,” Dana says. She squats beside him, leans over and turns his face toward her with one hand. “Remember me?”
John rolls onto his side and tries to get to his knees. Dana watches him struggle for a moment, then takes the front of his shirt in one fist and hauls him up into a sitting position.
“I remember you,” John croaks, then breaks out coughing again.
“Good,” Dana says. “This is Tanner.”
John cranes his neck to see a giant standing behind him, taller even than Dana. Tanner’s arms are folded across his chest, and he holds the loose end of what John now sees is a braided leash in one hand. He and Dana both wear leather tunics, leather pants and leather shoes. They’ve stripped John of his camouflage, leaving him shivering in his now-filthy underclothes. He closes his eyes, swallows, takes one deep breath, and then another.
“I was in the woods,” John says. “I was… how did you take me?”
“We’re not primitives,” Tanner says. He opens his mouth to continue, but Dana cuts him off with a glance.
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “We took you. What were you planning to do if we hadn’t?”
John looks up. Narrow slivers of deep blue sky peek through the canopy. A light breeze stirs the leaves overhead and sends a shiver running down the back of his neck. It’s as good a day as any to die.
“I’m a bonded employee,” he says. “You’re feral. You know what I was planning to do.”
“I told you,” Tanner says. “This is a waste of time.”
Dana shoots him a poisonous glare.
“We’ll see.” She turns back to John. “What’s your name?”
John shakes his head.
“Does it matter?”
“Maybe,” Dana says. “Maybe not.”
John glances up at Tanner, who's looming over him now, arms crossed and eyes narrowed.
“My name is John,” he says.
“That’s better,” Dana says. “What about your owner? What’s his name?”
“You mean my employer?” John says. Tanner laughs, but Dana just shakes her head.
“You’re not an employee,” she says. “It’s important that you understand that. Employees can leave their employers. Employees receive wages for their labor. You, my friend, are a slave. Now—what is your owner’s name?”
John closes his eyes. He’s about to tell Dana that none of this matters, that the Grays own this entire miserable planet now whether a few feral stragglers know it or not, that he’s no more Martok’s property than they are in the end, when the cord around his neck snaps tight again and Tanner lifts him half off the ground. John strains to pull his hands free while he scrambles to get his feet under him. The cord lifts higher, and Tanner kicks his legs out. John’s eyes are open now, but his vision is graying and a sound like rushing water fills his ears. His body tingles, burns, fades…
When the world returns, he’s lying face-down in the dirt.
He turns his head to the side. Dana is squatting next to him, one hand on the ground for balance.
“What is your owner’s name, John?”
He breathes in, breathes out. What does it matter?
“Martok,” he says. “Administrator Martok Smallfoot Blackwood.”
“Blackwood?” Dana says. “They’re a minority clan, no?”
“For now,” John says.
“Listen to him,” Tanner says. “He thinks he’s one of them.”
“I don’t,” John says. “I know what I am.”
“No you don’t,” Tanner says, and the cord tightens again. “You’re not an employee. You’re not even a slave. You’re a pet, little man. You’re Martok’s goddamned dog.”
John looks up at him. The cord twists his head to one side, but it’s not quite taut enough to cut off his breathing.
“Maybe so,” he rasps. “But think, Tanner. How many dogs were there in the world before the Grays came?”
“I don’t know,” Tanner says. “Millions?”
John tries to shake his head, but the movement pulls the cord even tighter.
“Hundreds of millions,” he manages to whisper. “There were almost as many dogs as humans.”
Tanner releases the leash, and John slumps to the ground, gasping.
“So?” Tanner says. “What’s your point?”
“I get it,” Dana says. “Dogs were everywhere then, right? But where were the wolves?”
“Wolves?” Tanner says.
“Right,” Dana says. “Before the Grays came, wolves were damned near extinct.”
It’s later, and John is back under the hut, pinned to the ground again, rolled onto his side now so that at least a little blood can make its way into his aching arms. He’s unsure why they put him back here, unsure why they haven’t killed him yet, but he’s beginning to wish they’d move things along. He’s suffered far worse punishments in the creche, but somehow the hopelessness of his situation now makes this pain harder to bear.
After a blank time that might have been an hour, or might have been a day, he hears the scrape of the plank covering his prison’s entrance being pulled away behind him. The light that filters in around him now is lower than before, soft and reddish. Evening, then? Or morning? It doesn’t really matter. He grits his teeth and braces for the yank of the cord.
It doesn’t come, though. Instead, he hear’s Dana’s voice.
“John? Are you awake?”
He almost laughs at that. Wouldn’t want to disturb his rest, would she?
“I’m awake,” he says. “Are you going to pull me out for a dignified hanging now, or just shoot me here and leave me to rot?”
“Shoot you? Don’t be stupid. Bullets are gold.”
It takes some effort, but he manages to roll over to face her. She’s lying on her stomach just outside the entrance, chin resting on her folded hands.
“Fine,” he says. “As long as you’re not planning on burning me alive, I guess I don’t really care. Can we get on with it, please?”
Dana doesn’t answer, just tilts her head to one side and stares at him for what feels like a very long time. Finally, she says, “What would happen if we did?”
“What?” John says. “If you killed me?”
“Yes,” Dana says. “If I pulled you out of there right now, cut your throat, and buried you in the forest, what would happen next?”
John opens his mouth to answer, hesitates, then closes it again. On some level, he’d been assuming that his death would be the end of the story. It sends a strange, sharp shock down his spine to realize that for Dana, the end of him would be a minor plot point.
“Understand,” Dana says. “This isn’t just me, squatting in a hut in the woods. It’s not just Tanner. We have a community here, John. We have old people. We have children. If you never come back, what will your owner do?”
And now, what to say? What might convince her to let him live?
In the end, the truth is as good as any lie he might concoct.
“He’ll kill you,” John says. “If I’m not back soon, he’ll kill you all.”
“Really?” Dana says. “He loves you that much?”
That draws a laugh from John, one that quickly morphs into a racking cough.
“No,” he says when he can breathe again. “Not because he loves me. He’ll kill you because he has plans for this land, and ferals are dangerous.”
“I see. How will he kill us? Will he send more like you?”
“No,” John says. “He doesn’t have any more like me. If I don’t come back, he’ll send drones. Hunter-killers, probably.”
“Spiders?” Her expression is blank, but John can hear the shudder in her voice. “If he has access to those abominations, why hasn’t he sent them already?”
“Drones are expensive. Bonded employees are cheap.”
She opens her mouth to reply, then hesitates, shakes her head, and rolls away from the opening. A moment later, John hears the scrape of the plank being dragged back into place.
“What if we let you go?”
John opens his eyes. Dana’s head and shoulders are just a vague black silhouette against the darkness outside. He tries to reply, but all he can manage is a whisper. He’s had no water since he was captured. How long has that been? And how long does it take to die of thirst? He doesn’t know the answer to either of those questions for certain, but he feels that the two are probably converging. After a half-minute of trying, he finally works up enough saliva to speak.
“If we just let you go,” Dana says. “If you went back to Martok and told him you couldn’t find us, or that you chased us away, what would happen then?”
For the first time since his capture, a tiny flicker of hope stirs. This is an easy lie. Tell her all will be well, that Martok will believe that they’ve gone, and he can get on with his life as if none of this had happened. He runs his tongue around his mouth and swallows. An easy lie…
They have children here.
They have a community.
A human community.
John sighs, and signs his own death warrant.
“Martok would kill you,” he says. “The only difference would be that he’d kill me first for trying to lie to him.” He hesitates, then sighs again. “Or, more likely, I wouldn’t tell him such a stupid, easily falsifiable lie in the first place, no matter what I’d promised you. I’d tell him exactly what happened and where you are. He’d punish me for failing to finish my job, but he’d probably let me live. Bonded employees are cheap, but they’re not free, after all. Then, he’d send in the spiders.”
Dana is silent then, for long enough that John begins to wonder if she’s gone, if the silhouette he still sees in the entrance is just a trick of the shadows outside. When she speaks again, her voice is smaller, and seems farther away.
“What should we do, John? If you were me, what would you do?”
John closes his eyes. He knows what he’d do.
“Kill me,” he says. “Kill me, and run. How long have I been here?”
“More than a day,” Dana says. “Almost two.”
How long will Martok wait for him to return?
John’s a bit surprised he’s waited even this long.
“Do it now,” John says. “Before morning. Run far. Run fast. Head north, away from the lake and into the mountains. If you can put enough miles behind you before Martok looses the spiders, you might have a chance.”
“We can’t do that,” Dana says. “I told you. We have children here. We have old people. We can’t run, John. Some of us can barely walk.”
John doesn’t answer. In truth, if the spiders are coming, it won’t matter if they can run. It might not matter if they could fly. After a short silence, Dana’s shadow disappears, and the plank slides back into place.
John wakes to a sharp tug at the cord around his neck.
“John!” Dana whispers. “Wake up. It’s time to go.”
She pulls at the cord again, harder this time. He tries to help her, but with his arms pinioned, there’s little he can do as she drags him out into the darkness.
“Come on,” she says, and pulls him to his feet. His knees buckle at first, but she holds him up until the blood returns to his legs and he’s able to stand. “Walk,” she says, and gestures toward a path leading off into the woods. She carries a machete in one hand. His rifle is slung across her back, along with a bulky leather pack.
“Not the machete,” John says. “Please. I know you need bullets, but strangling is better.”
“Walk,” she says again, and prods him with the tip of the blade.
So, he walks.
John spends the next half-hour expecting to feel the machete bite into the back of his skull with every step. They’ve covered a mile, maybe, when she tells him to stop. His heart lurches into a jackhammer rhythm, but he complies. The blow he’s expecting doesn’t come, though. Instead, she carefully cuts the cord from his neck, and then the bindings on his wrists. His arms drop to his sides, free for the first time in two days. He moans at the surge of new blood flowing into his hands.
“Quiet!” Dana hisses, and prods him again with the machete.
The hours drag on.
Eventually, John forgets to be afraid.
He remembers, though, when Dana finally says, “Stop here. This is far enough.”
It’s not quite dawn yet, but the eastern sky is beginning to lighten through the trees. John turns to face her.
“Please,” he says. “Not the machete.”
“Shut up,” Dana says. She shrugs out of her pack and kicks it toward him. “Get dressed.”
John stares at her. She points the machete at the pack, then up at him.
“I said, get dressed.”
Without taking his eyes from her, John crouches to open the pack. Inside he finds his camouflage, and his boots.
“This gear is valuable,” he says.
Dana rolls her eyes.
“I know what it is,” she says. “Get into it.”
When he’s pulled on his boots and zipped the jacket up to his chin, he stands to face her.
She slides the machete into a sheath at her belt and lifts the rifle strap over her head.
“Bullets are gold,” he says.
“I know,” Dana says, and tosses him the rifle. “But you’re rich, aren’t you?”
“I don’t…” John begins.
But then, of course, he does understand.
“Tell Martok I was a lone wolf,” Dana says. “I left Tanner a note. They’ll go. North, away from the lake, just like you said. They just need time.”
John nods. He brings the rifle to his shoulder.
Dana closes her eyes.
“I must confess,” Martok rumbles. “I am pleasantly surprised. I did not know you were a hunter.”
“Neither did I.”
Martok nudges Dana’s body with one massive, blunt foot. John could almost believe she was sleeping if not for the single neat hole in the center of her chest.
“A good shot, too. How close were you?”
“Fifty yards. Maybe closer. The camouflage made things easier.”
“Yes,” Martok says. “I would imagine so.” He rolls her over. The exit wound in her back is wider, and ragged. “You’re sure there were no others? I’ve been told that humans are rarely alone.”
“Not true,” John says. “Look at me. I’m alone.”
“You, John? Never. You’ll always have me, after all.”
John glances over at Martok.
His hand drifts to his rifle.
Far off in the distance, a lone wolf howls.
This story originally appeared in Analog.