Aug 19th 2022
No one outruns the wolf.
Flint knows that. Early this evening, when he first saw the wolf’s sleek metal body prowling outside his hideout—a half-collapsed apartment complex in the remnants of Old Town—Flint knew he was going to die.
Still he ran, carrying only his pistol and his fear.
Before he fled, he piled together all the illegal books he had hoarded, the notes, the memory card from his burner phone. He doused the stack in vodka and tossed a lit match upon it.
He still remembers the unmistakable whir of the wolf’s pneumatic legs, hissing up the stairs. The Collective doesn’t waste manpower chasing down thought-smugglers anymore, not when their automaton wolves can hunt without sleeping, without eating, without any purpose but this: eliminate the target.
Flint heaved himself down the fire escape, metal groaning under him. When his boots hit asphalt, he bolted.
The wolf followed—and follows him still.
Old Town is a bomb-riddled shell of its old self. Before the war, before the rise of the Collective, it had been Flint’s childhood. He knows this place better than his own heart. It’s become a tombstone city, full of squatters who know better than to light their candles at night. Night is when the wolves come out to hunt.
Now it is true-dark. Clouds hold the moon in their fists.
Flint doesn’t know how long he has been running. His legs burn as he stumbles through midnight streets, down rubble-lined alleyways. He knows—has always known—that this night was coming for him, certain as his own heartbeat.
Still, the relentless gut-punch of reality keeps dizzying him, again and again.
There’s no saying goodbye. His lover’s face flashes in his mind: Lazarus, his crooked-tooth smile, the sweet scent of his hair. He imagines Lazarus discovering his hideout burnt and barren and drops the thought like a hot coal.
Flint ventures behind the downtown movie theater, which the Collective burned years ago. He still remembers the owner hanging from the blackened marquee, purplish tongue bulging. The sign around his neck read: LANGUAGE IS VIOLENCE.
He hesitates there in the shadows. Listens for the wolf scouring the dark for traces of his heat signature.
Old Town answers with howling silence.
Flint turns his head. His blood leadens.
There, visible only by the red lights of its eyes, the wolf hulks at the far end of the alley.
Flint seizes his pistol, but the wolf is already charging, its mechanical joints pumping impossibly fast toward him. The panels on its back unfold, and the muzzles of twin gun barrels emerge. He grabs two handfuls of rubble and hurls them at the wolf.
The robot scrabbles for traction and flips over, metal scraping. Gunshots rattle after him.
Flint doesn’t waste time looking back.
He veers around the corner and spies a familiar old building: a rec center he visited almost every day as a boy. Boards cover the shattered windows—except where one dangles by a lone nail.
Flint hinges it up and shimmies inside.
His boots crunch on broken glass. Flint needs only a moment to orient himself. He hurries down the hallway. He can’t feel the pain in his legs anymore. Adrenaline draws his focus into a single pinpoint: survive.
Behind him, metal clinks as the wolf hits the floor.
It’s a dead end, but he wonders if the wolf knows it.
The hallway ends at a pair of double doors that yawn open like the gates of hell or heaven—Flint can’t tell. He barrels through them. Even in the blackness, he recognizes this place: the old climbing gym. The walls loom like old shipwrecks, handholds barnacling their immense sides.
How many hours had he spent here, hands calloused and chalk-covered, with no idea it would all end like this?
His mind is a panic, but his hands and feet remember the old paths, like playing a half-forgotten song. Flint smears his sweaty palms on his jeans and hauls himself up, boots finding the familiar pathway leading up.
Ropeless, heart thrumming, he climbs.
This was never easy, even when he was young. Even in the right shoes, even with his hands firm and unshaking. But there’s no backing out of this foxhole now.
The ground shrinks below as he ascends with his eyes closed, trusting his muscle memory to seek the safest handholds.
Below him, the wolf skulks into the gym. The padded floor mutes its footsteps; only the metallic hum of its inner engine reveals it.
Flint risks a downward glance. His muscles lock up as he realizes just how far he will fall if his grip slips now. Sweat beads down his forehead and his shuddering arms.
The wolf paces below, a black glint in the gloom.
As long as it doesn’t look up, he’s safe. As long as his own dripping fear-sweat doesn’t betray him.
His boot slips; he fights for traction.
It’s such a long way down.
In his mind, Lazarus whispers into his hair, They can take everything from us, but they’ll never take our thoughts.
The wolf circles.
Flint smears his damp forehead against his shoulder. He waits, and the wolf waits with him.
Moonlight splinters in through the dusty windows.
It is only a moment. A fleeting few seconds. The wolf stands rigid, head swiveling, scanning the dark.
Flint dares to release one hand. His fingertips scream, but he unholsters his pistol. Takes aim.
The wolf’s memory unit should be nestled between its shoulders, but that’s half-prayer, half-rumor. Flint only knows he cannot hold on much longer.
He squeezes the trigger.
The wolf drops as the gunshot howls off the walls. It collapses sparking and spasming and then goes still.
Flint lets his pistol fall. Relief thickens in his throat.
He knows it’s not over. The Collective will return for him soon, and this time the wolves will come in packs.
But it’s enough time to find Lazarus. To say goodbye.
No wolf will keep him from that.
Author Bio: Taylor Rae (she/her) is a professional mountain troll, hidden away in the wilds of north Idaho. She’s a bisexual cliche who likes longboarding and sitting weird in chairs. She writes about forgotten gods, lost culture, and spaceships. You can find more of her work at www.mostlytaylor.com.
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