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What a Wolf Wants

by Nikki J. North

3404 words
Listen to this story, narrated by the author

The doctor turned to watch the great baroque tower falter and sway. A single, skeletal digit, it stretched to brush the pale cheek of the broken moon above, shedding bits and battlements and synth as it grew. The moon was called Izanagi, and the planet it circled was called Izanami. The doctor was twelve, or at least she thought she was twelve, and her real name was Sharon, like the rose, but her father called her Sylvester, and that had been shortened by her sister to Sylvy.

The wolf standing next to the girl also watched. This tower was just the tallest of many now, their sharp spikes piercing through insectile light, which pulsed with uneven, wretched beats from various obsessive locations within the city. From the distance at which the wolf and the girl stood, a kind of buzz could be heard, like a power line, humming and chortling, rising from scattered pockets of alien corruption.

A meteor moved between moon and planet — a sword stroke through the stars.

“We don’t have much longer now,” the wolf said.

Sylvy rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. There was no time to rest. She must rest.

“You never sleep,” she accused the wolf next to her, “Why don't you ever sleep?”

The wolf blinked. “Everybody knows wolves don't sleep.”

“Everybody knows … ” Sylvy muttered as she pulled a small, velvet pouch from a pocket that also held two jawbreakers, a round patch with a depiction of the historic X-B12 space shuttle sewn into it, and a ticket stub to the Summit County Fair. “What do you know about wolves. You're not even really a wolf, Wolf.” She walked forward ten paces and nestled House into place then ran back to the leafless copse of trees from which they had emerged.

“That's true. I'm a guide, as I've told you many times before now.”

House doubled then tripled in size, growing through dollhouse size, treehouse size; arriving finally at small human size with a gentle pop and the smell of smoky peat.

“You're a hallucination. A glorified alarm clock.”

“I'm an interface.”

“A lie.”

Today House had three windows instead of two and its front door was arched at the top. Sylvy stepped past the front gate and patted the post.

The wolf followed.

The light in the house was a creamy caramel. Sylvy knew House kept it that way because it was the optimal color and intensity and reminded Sylvy of home. She sat on the rough bench in front of the counter and took off her muddy boots, groaning with pleasure as she stretched her toes. When was the last time she had taken the things off? She couldn’t remember. A PB&J sandwich was waiting on a plate next to a steaming cup of tea that smelled of peppermint and chamomile. Sylvy stuck her face in the steam and inhaled.

In the far distance, a piece of the tower groaned and fell; the fragile china in the cabinets shivered and shook. The wolf made itself comfortable in an overstuffed armchair and lay its muzzle on its paws.

Sylvy paused to listen. No further cracks or snaps invaded the silence of the night. She demolished half the sandwich and sat listening to the clock purring through the minutes, hours, all the unraveled and uncounted eternities that spring up between each tick, until across the room, light began to weasel through the crack under the front door. She could see it prying at the space between the jam and the wall, reaching across the boards of the small room. It twitched at regular intervals, as if interrupted by someone pacing in front of it with even, unheard steps.

Flicker, flicker, flicker, pause. Flicker, flicker, flicker, pause.

Sylvy drank the last bitter remains of her tea.

“We're almost there. We'll find her,” she said into the cup.

The wolf smiled its great marauding smile. It was agreeing. It was laughing.

“You know that's not what we're here for, Doctor.”

“Don't call me that. I've told you a thousand times.”

“And I've told you — we're not here for your sister.”

“I know that, too.” Sylvy stood.

“Do you? Do you remember why we are here? You were chosen for a reason, but that reason is as dangerous as it is beneficial. This apparition you are chasing is a side effect of communication. To interface with the patient a door had to be opened.”

Sylvy touched her toes to the floor then pulled them back like a swimmer testing the water. The floor was warm and smooth. Her feet made swishy noises as she shuffled to the threshold of the room, making sure no part of her touched the light.

Flick, flick, flick, pause, flick, flick, flick, pause.

“I used to tell my bad dreams to Vic, and she would make up an ending to the dream where everything turned out okay,” Sylvy told the wolf.

The wolf stretched, like a runner at the blocks, then leapt down.

“This isn't helping,” it said.

Sylvy's lips tightened; she cleared her throat, “You wolves are always interrupting people.”

Sniffing indignantly, the wolf walked to the front door.

“Anyways, Vic was going to be a race car driver and an interstellar spaceship captain and the world’s best pancake cooker. I was going to be her pit boss and her engineer and the world’s best pancake taster. After school she would make these pancake sandwiches on the little electric griddle while we listened to the Shangri Las sing ‘I’ll Never Learn.’ Mom would come home and she would braid our hair for bed, and Vic would tell me stories. That's how it was … before.”

Sylvy stopped, considering the light still flicking its fingers across the floor. Shadows ran and rippled up the walls, as if at an indoor pool. The wavering light distorted the wolf's face, making its mouth snarl.

Something outside squealed, there was a pop and the walls shuddered.

Sylvy frowned. “That was fast. I don't think it's ever found us this fast before.”

“No, never so fast,” the wolf agreed, prowling at the door.

“We're close now, though. We have a chance. Let's go, House,” she commanded. On the opposite side of the room a lintel grew out of the floor and a door to match, much smaller than the one at the front, grew with it. Sylvy sat down and pulled her boots on. They smelled like leather and wool and mud.

“Yes, close, very close … but the city, it is also close, very close,” the wolf continued to stare at the illuminated threshold. Sylvy yanked a navy peacoat off the hook beside the little red door.

“Well, then we had better be fast — very, very fast,” she said, and swung the small door open, crawling through on hands and knees.

Flickering torches lit the corridor beyond. Scents of summer swept through, reminding Sylvy of the big, drooping purple flowers that filled her Grandmother’s garden in Florida where she and Vic had explored the ruins of the old launch pads, skipping past no trespassing signs and broken heaps of sharp, corroded metal. She rose and stepped onto the cold stone floor, leaving behind the warmth of House. The wolf padded past her, down the corridor, to an arch outlined by starlight.

Sylvy turned and held out her hand, “C'mon, House,” she called. The little red door squealed then popped off its hinges as the frame around it began to shrink. Within seconds House had reduced itself to the size of a charm and sat hot and panting in her hand. She slid House back in its pouch, letting it circle around until it settled down, then tucked the pouch into her coat pocket.

Through the arch, red roses dripped from green foliage, eating up walls and colonnades. Above, the sky was smothered in its usual deep purple. At the center of the courtyard stood a circle of hedge animals — zebras, unicorns, mammoths, a leaping tiger.

The tiger’s mouth was open. Its eyes gleamed like the slick, black carapace of some giant beetle. The wolf sniffed the air. The tiger's mouth snapped shut; it shifted into a crouch. “Trespasser,” it growled with a voice of rustling leaves and scratching twigs, “we’ve told you, we don’t want your help. You will be expelled.”

Sylvy placed her hand on the deep ruff of the wolf's neck, and with a springing step launched herself onto the wolf's back.

The tiger pounced.

They dodged to the left and shot forward, diving through the circled animals. Sylvy grabbed two fistfuls of fur at the wolf’s neck, ducking as branches slapped at her face and arms. They left the courtyard, leaping through an arch and turning a sharp right.

Twigs cracked and snapped.

A terrible, squealing scream pursued them.

“We have to get across the bridge,” the wolf rasped.

“What bridge,” Sylvy asked, even as the ground to either side of them fell.

Pavement cracked and became a cobbled path. They rushed forward; the path rose.

Sylvy’s stomach heaved. She flexed her sweating hands. Rumbles of thunder boomed from all directions as water exploded from aqueducts on either side of the bridge that assembled itself even as they raced over its slender surface.

Through the grate of the bridge, she saw the seething surface of the city below. The roofs of the houses shivered, timbers growing upward. A three-story Victorian unfurled, gables and cupolas reaching toward them. A weather vane’s point scraped the underside of Sylvy's foot. Behind them the sounds of cracking branches and pointy howls grew closer.

They were running out of bridge. Its ragged, self-constructing edge was now only feet away. Ahead, the spire of a high-rise stabbed at the sky. Windows thundered upward in an indistinguishable blur like boxes on a roulette wheel.
They were going to slam right into it.

Holy Fish Flipping Christ, Sylvy thought, and felt a strange, wild satisfaction at using her mother’s most forbidden curse.

They leapt through the air.

We’re not going to make it

Glass breaking. Colors bending. Wet wool.

• • •

Sylvy’s arms stung; her face stung. She rose from where she lay on the floor. Jagged edges of glass framed a writhing skyline. Far below them, still receding, the bridge twisted and heaved and grew small.

Glass crunched. The wolf stood next to her, red tongue hanging from a mouth full of white, sharp teeth. Yellow eyes, the size of Sylvy’s fist, reflected a frightened young woman, maybe fourteen or fifteen, hair sparkling with glass.

The room they crashed into stretched to the vanishing point on the left and right. Bookcases towered from floor to ceiling. Lines of colorful, gilt spines were punctuated by decorative apocrypha.

“Well, that was fun.” Sylvy brushed tiny shards of glass from her clothes with shaking hands and checked to make sure House was okay.

The wolf frowned at her.


“I know, I know, this is my brain on drugs.”

“Not your brain—”

“ — an interface representing the mapping between my brain and the patient … on drugs. I know.”

“Listen to me.” The wolf sniffed at the air. “We must eradicate this grief and --”

Sylvy looked out over the ruined city. “You think this is just some neat little bit of code run amok, some circuit gone wrong, that we can snip out? Some switch we can turn off? Spoken like a true interface.” The wolf made a sound like a sigh, even though everyone knows wolves don't sigh.

“The sister you chase is a defense — an effort to distract you from your task.”

“I know,” Sylvy said, “but it doesn't make me want to see her any less.”

She chose the left wing and began walking.

They passed lines of books with titles like The Rise and Fall of the Lunar Empire, Beatles Flew From Her Eyes, and The Terrible Reign of Nikola Tesla III, all bound and gilt, punctuated by wooden boxes, stone sculptures, framed maps, curling horns, the mounted head of something that looked like a cross between a buffalo and a cockroach. The wolf's claws clicked on the granite floor. After ten minutes of walking they came to the corridor’s end. It was terminated by an atrium housing a representation of the Izanagi system, with its three orbiting planets and two moons circling a sun only slightly larger than Earth’s own.

A round window framed the slowly twirling model. Through it a sluggish and yellowed light entered, as if cast by gas lamp or anemic sun. On the opposite side of the room, a telescope sat pointed toward a postage stamp-sized window in the floor.

Sylvy paused and walked over to it. “Vic had one just like this,” she ran her hand over the cylindrical surface. “My mother gave it to her on her sixteenth birthday. When we all still thought she was leaving, joining the service, wandering out into space like she always dreamed, like she always wanted.”

Sylvy squinted into the eyepiece of the telescope. Through the curving, lensed image she could see the universe at the bottom of a well slick with stars. It was so big, and Sylvy was very small.

“Tell me what a wolf wants, Wolf.”

“What a wolf wants … a wolf wants wind and dirt and the taste of the unrevised moment, a wolf wants the stars to stare forever, a wolf wants to be free, and a wolf wants the moving muscle and common breaths of its brothers.”

Sylvy looked away from the eyepiece, but her head stayed bowed.

“We know you grieve. We know you suffer.”

“Suffering?” The wolf mused, “You're lying on a couch in the belly of a great ship, only your mind is here, forming some approximation of yourself. Izanagi is gone. I am alone now.”

Sylvy swung the telescope around and focused on a book open on a pedestal across the room. She read the first sentence of the first page: “Empathy was missing from the first technologies — so many centuries ago. Survival instinct. The things that make machines compatible with human life, so we gave the planet-city sentience, life as we knew it.”

She straightened, looking at the ball of blue-green azurite malachite that swung around a much larger sphere of orange agate.

“Life as we knew it,” she repeated. “And with that life — death. Wolves, Izanagi, my sister, even me — despite synth and all the eons it has given us. Most beings in our era have never experienced death. Only those few ancients who survive from the Systems Era, can begin to comprehend such a thing.”

Her voice was quiet in the enormity of the domed room.

“Even you, Keeper of Systems, City-planet Izanami, last of your kind … someday, but it doesn’t have to be now.”

• • •

They emerged onto a balcony overlooking a patchwork of rooftops. On the horizon the skyline of the city undulated like a sea besieged by storms. Smoke rose in a couple of places. Roofs rippled and strobed, like a heartbeat.

“Down there?” Sylvy asked.

“Down there,” the wolf said. “Hop on.”

They ran across slate and straw and terracotta. They darted around smoke stacks and rusty weather vanes and big metal antennas. They leapt across small gaps hung with clotheslines and large gaps with alleys that bucked and heaved. They rounded a green, copper dome; figures towered at its cardinal coordinates, offering their shadows for concealment. Up onto an intricately carved balustrade; down the head of a marble jade emperor; hop onto a shoulder. The street was only stories away. Arm to knee, then a fast slide down a fold in the robes to the ground.

They twisted between aluminum trailers with doors hanging open. They ducked under a fallen street light whose dying breath revealed a path strewn with jumbled cars. Ahead, a red flag snapped sharp in the wind, and Sylvy knew what they would see the moment they rounded a pile of twisted metal gathered at the base of a crenellated watchtower.

She knew it.

But there was only a road.

The wolf slowed to a walk and stopped at its asphalt edge.

Sylvy slid down the wolf's back. The road stretched either direction. They were alone now in a flat prairie that spread unending around them. At the horizon, light limned the curve of Izanami's surface. Sylvy stepped forward onto the tar black asphalt. Her movements felt slow and deliberate. She stood in the middle of the road, her legs straddling the yellow stitches that cleaved its rough skin in half.

Up ahead something was struggling. Its front legs twitched pitifully as it continued to try to run away, to escape the ill fortune which had already befallen it.

It was a wolf.

Sylvy looked behind her. There was only the empty prairie. She walked forward and fell to her knees. In the cold of the night, the pavement was warm and biting. She placed a trembling hand on the wolf's neck. It struggled weakly to lift its head and bite her.

Another hand reached forward, stilling the helpless thing’s efforts.

“I'm sorry, Little Sister.” Vic knelt on the other side of the dying animal. She looked as she always had to Sylvy in life and memory — seventeen, wild within the world, the mass of mahogany hair, her mouth a relaxed question mark turned sideways.

“This is it, isn't it? This is the moment of decision. When you decided to give up after that transport hit you. When you decided it was too hard.”

Her sister reached over and squeezed Sylvy's shoulder. Sylvy shrugged it off.

“Don't. I'm not here for your apologies. I'm older. I have other business to attend to now.”

“That's right, you're a doctor,” she said. “Doctor of Psychological Systems Engineering … who could have thought we would go to space this way? After all the dreams of joining the service, all the dreams of us flying together. Remember how we would sneak out to see the launches?”

Her square fingered, capable hand stroked the wolf’s ear.

“You were such a fearless kid. I would pull you up and lower you down that huge concrete fence, and you weren’t scared at all — you loved it and we would sit on the little hill where no one could see us, watching the lights, listening to the command center on our metas until the ship took off.”

All the anger Sylvy hadn't even known she felt rose up inside, tumbling out. She knew it was a distraction to the task at hand, but was as helpless before it as in the face of a meteor falling into a planet. “You left me. You were supposed to be my big sister. You were supposed to look after me, instead you were just a selfish asshole.”

She leaned forward, “So screw you.” and finding that unsatisfactory, she reached for some other phrase with which to express her fury and found only the classic of their childhood. “Screw you and the horse you rode in on.”

Vic’s eyebrows quirked upward, then they were both giggling, then they were both laughing. The great whooping gusts escaped and they laughed just as they had when they sat in their blanket fort looking at one of father’s magazines and trying to imagine what was going on; just as they had when their first model rocket had ignited and then immediately fizzled and fallen on its side; just as they always had.

The wolf squirmed beneath their hands and the laughter died.

Sylvy drew in a breath. “I miss you, still … still after all this time.”

“I know.”

“But you’re not really my sister. You picked this moment from my life, from my memory. You chose my sister.”

Sylvy did what she had wanted to do that night, when her sister was seventeen and running away, heartbroken, dreamstolen, to the city, and she was twelve and determined to follow and could do nothing to help when her sister lay on this road, she leaned down and kissed the wolf tenderly on the forehead.

Her sister's warm breath was on her cheek. It smelled alive, like an apple being bitten into.



“You remember the launches don't you?”


“We were happy then.”


“I’m scared.”

“I know. I’m here.”

The wolf’s round, golden eyes closed. Two sisters walked toward the city under the bones of a drifting moon.

Nikki J. North is an author of speculative fiction and a software engineer. She lives near Boulder, Colorado with five dogs and a fantastic assortment of computers. Her fiction has appeared in James Gunn’s Ad Astra and Year’s Best SF. You can find a full list of previously published work and other musings at nikkijnorth.com.

Issue 28

October 2016

3LBE 328

Front & Back cover art by Rew X