Wolf by Carla Durbach

Aspen has been tracking them for two days. The scents of human sweat, wildfire, and fear rise like water vapor in the frosted midnight air. Her two hundred million olfactory cells dance with anticipation in expectation of the hunt. There is a metallic taste in her mouth too: the sour glint of rusting iron. Right on the edge of her tongue, the flavor sparks troubling recollections of the modifications. She shudders and tucks the memory away in a confined, dark space within her mind. Her left oculum rotates counterclockwise and secures both targets, relays the image and distance, calculates trajectory, the necessary speed and time to intercept.

The Biologic, with her long mane of brown hair, is slight of frame but tough, full of sharp angles and fleet of foot. She keeps up easily with the man. He is squat, and hard-wired, runs with the twist of jolting movements, stops to glance behind him every now and then.

Decaying implants. Aspen can smell them a mile away and knows that the Biogenic is in trouble. The older Biogenic models always caused the most inconvenience. Their limbic systems were left intact by the inserts, laying too deep within the cerebral cortex for full modification. Despite the alterations, they remain vulnerable to human motivation, emotion, and memory. They are also susceptible to the likes of romantic affiliation. If this happens between two older models, all is well. Naively, they sometimes fall for a Biologic and that is when it becomes problematic and requires intervention. Biologics are pristine and very much needed for breeding. They are out of bounds to Biogenic models.

Hunt, separate, dismantle and retrieve—that is her mission. But she knows that she is getting distracted. Interception was supposed to take place at dawn yet the excitement of the chase was still rushing through her blood like millions of pins and needles. They ran, scared, across the terrain; the woman fell and he came back for her. His body is in the throes of disassembly but he came back. This intrigued Aspen and stopped her suddenly in her tracks, interrupting her program. A glitch.

That night, she observes them. Walks right into their camp, slinking in the shadows as she approaches their sleeping bodies. She clocks their hands intertwined in the dark, the woman’s head on his shoulder. She gets so close that her breath grazes their cheeks, rustles their hair, and yet she does nothing but stare. She curls up a few paces away and watches them silently, simmering with envy. It has been a long time since she felt that. It has been a long time since she felt anything at all.

In the third watch of the night, she closes her eyes and dreams of the first bout of darkness, of what was done when the color red exploded in her world like a sun, seeping blood. She relives the roaring at her ears, the dim light from the machines, the taste of metal as she bit down on raw, threaded gums. Harsh steel dug into her spine, igniting sparks. Her fingers curled involuntarily, stiff and tight, gripping inwards. Lines at her fingertips, ink merging. A man with waxy skin reached for her.

“Hold still. It will soon pass.”

But he lied.

Translucent membrane wrapped around her limbs and torso and neck, around her face, closing her in a rolling wave. Muscle fibers contracted; tendons stretched—nerves fired up. Her corneas lit up behind her eyelids as the lasers from the fiber optics penetrated flesh. Tiny electrodes of glass reached into her brain. The last breath rushed in and then the whiteness of a blank slate and the coolness of foam. Lost in effervescence. But it hurt. It hurt like fire.

Skin stinging, Aspen wakes up seething and gnashing her teeth. The man and the woman are still asleep. And it takes all of her self-control not to lunge. It was never their fault anyway. Canis Lupus codons were inserted into her DNA long ago, so long ago that she fails to remember exactly when, certainly before the other modifications or she would not have survived. She creeps silently away from camp, leaves it behind without looking back. Places as much distance between her instincts and the targets as possible.

In the past, tracking and retrieving never disrupted her this much. This couple is different somehow or perhaps she is simply damaged, in need of repair. She runs a diagnostic check through all her systems but comes up empty.

***

Later, Aspen finds shelter in a crevice at the bottom of a rugged cliff. She lies there, in the damp moss of that small space, curled up on herself, releasing sharp, shallow breaths. Her chin rests on her drawn knees, the roughness of the polyurethane-nylon suit grazing against her skin. Dull colors reflect in the slanting light. Her fingers tug and rip at the green beneath her, released fragments dispersing around her. For a fleeting second, she imagines that she is lying inside a nest. Restrained, safe. She closes her eyes until the moment lengthens and her thundering heart settles.

The sharp, humid scent makes for a refreshing change from the labs, which have no windows and reek of procedural logic, sanitizer, and blood. The crisp air expands her lungs, triggering flashbacks, and she flinches. Dreams or memories, she doesn’t know which, of her brother and sister. She is an observer as she watches herself with them. Walking together in a silver meadow, bare toes wriggling in the morning frost. A fine mist clings to their clothes, their hair, their eyelashes. It is drizzling. Her sister runs ahead, the wind carrying her dark hair, draping it over her smile as she glances back. The strands weighed by jewelry droplets and laughter between her lips.

“Can’t catch me.”

They run after her, giggling. They are triplets. Three in one womb. Three in one. This is the image in which they have been created.

Her sister and brother disappear between the swaying trees. She runs around, frantic, calling their names. Panic snapping at her throat. The sky darkens. She runs her fingertips along the air, generating invisible ripples. The earth shakes beneath her feet. Makes her draw back. In front of her is a growing wall, reaching up, up and up into the sky. She can no longer see its edge. On the other side are her brother and sister and she is alone.

When she was younger, she would wake up from these night images with a start. The doctors would inject her with sedatives until she learned to gulp down her screams. These are forbidden thoughts. She knows this but no longer cares. The numbness has dissipated and for the first time in forever she feels alive again.

It’s getting late now, soon the drones will be sent for full retrieval. She crawls out from her shelter, stands to her full height and stretches before flexing down on her haunches. Pushing her primal musings aside, she launches into the thrill of the hunt. This is the time of the predator, the carving hour, except this time she lets her oculus relay go dark and it is no longer the couple that she is hunting.


Carla Durbach writes a few things and reads a great deal more. She has been weaving tales since the age of 7, when she was unduly fascinated by robots and aliens. Speculative fiction has remained a favorite genre. Carla’s fiction has appeared in Heart of Flesh. Her poetry has been published in the Little Rose, Bonnie’s Crew, and Royal Rose lit mags and TL;DR Press. She is a returning prodigal to the world of writing after a long hiatus.