Kelly kept pace with him. He would follow his nose, have them stop before he would nod and continue walking.
He undid the lid on his canteen and took a long pull on it before he passed it to her. She took it and drank before she returned it to him.
‘Can the drone see us?’ she said.
John glanced up and squinted against the light.
‘I don’t know the range it has, or what type of surveillance equipment it can look at us with. Money gets you better toys, and we know they’ve got money to throw at this.’ he said.
Kelly sighed and dug her hands into the pockets of the coat.
‘I thought it was moving to a better class of employer.’ she said.
He took a step towards her and smiled at her.
‘I wouldn’t presume to judge anyone for anything. We’ve both found ourselves in this, Kelly, and we’ll find a way out.’ he said.
Kelly watched how he walked. With a straight back and his head held up, shoulders back as he watched the trees ahead, sniffing the air to keep them on the right path.
‘How long do you think we’ll be out here?’ she said.
He frowned and screwed the lid back onto the canteen before he tucked it back into his belt.
‘We need them to think you’re gone. Without the briefcase, there’s not a lot to gain in finding you other than -‘ he said.
Kelly did not need him to finish. She swallowed, tasted a grit at the back of the throat no amount of water could dislodge. Her future was always vague, but so little used to ride on it before. She had done her share of the work and now she was walking through to the woods, with the big bad wolf, she thought.
‘Tell me about going back?’ she said
He looked upwards before he ran his tongue over his lips and started to talk.
I could not rely on disease surveillance data to track what had happened. My money and presence at Harvard helped but most of what I needed to do, had to be done in complete secrecy.
I decided to go back to where I encountered the thing which attacked me.
Most of the information related to lycanthropy was amusing but useless.
A Persian Prince once suffered from a belief he was a cow.
King Nebuchadnezzar and Odysseus’ crew suffered from clinical versions of it, the belief they had transformed into animals.
I had high definition video of it, how my body forms a carapace of fibrin and inside it, my entire body turns into 200lbs of murder and instinct. The form is disproportionate to the closest physical cousin, canis lupus.
It looks like a wolf but it is not.
Much like the thing which infected me in the first place.
I have to hide behind information because the knowledge serves as evidence we live in a universe which is, at best, indifferent but when I woke up inside a scab made of my own skin, I wondered if it wasn’t malevolent as well.
I packed less than before. Most of what I needed was inside me, the capacity and ability to survive is innate to all of us but I had a headful of hunger suited to finding what had attacked me.
Or, as I began to think of it, who.
It made sense if I treated what happened to me as a disease. It required a vector of infection, but whether there were conditions of infection, I was a sufferer who lived with it every hour of every day.
The last time I had looked into its eyes, I had seen only hunger. I wanted to look again and see if I recognised myself there.
The most sophisticated item I took was an MP3 player. I had tracked and recorded an induction which triggered a post-hypnotic suggestion to allow me to retain my consciousness during the change. It was not pretty to go into it aware of what was happening but it was necessary.
I became a wound and something crawled out of it, with an animal’s capabilities and my thoughts in the driving seat.
Its scent was everywhere. A blistering, chemical stink which had thickened in places, where it paced the earth, pissing its authority into the soil. My nose recoiled from the stench, even as it gleaned valuable information.
Scent was a somatic language, condensed into signatures which were processed through my language centres, like upgrading your computer equipment to run an old game.
So, I processed the scent as being:
(danger) (pain) (territory)
Which broke down intellectually into different packets of information.
(danger) became (violence + sickness + biting + food)
(pain) became (biting + violence+stop)
And so on.
I cocked my leg against the trunk of a tree and sent my own message.
Howling would have been grandiose and a failure to understand the nature of conflict on this level. I had, by necessity, become a keen student in my own physiology. Fluency in this language was less of a challenge once I could apply my intelligence and cut through the gordian knot of my condition.
(here) (fuck you) (challenge)
I lowered my head and ran forwards into the trees, following the trail of scent as an act of provocation.
The scent packages came from different parts of the body. The first (danger) had been expressed from its anal gland and the (territory) came from a gland in its front left paw. Another burst of expression wafted over to me, and I turned, squared my shoulders and expressed a cloud of (challenge) against it.
I raised my muzzle and caught the scent of estrus which surprised me. My assumption was of a male aggressor and I watched it move between the trees towards me.
It snarled and I saw where the missing tooth had begun to grow in, white and soft against the yellowing array of flat heavy teeth next to it.
We charged towards one another and whipped around in a circle, snarling and barking at one another, unable to ask or give quarter.
(recognition) (difference) came out as my right paw sent up a burst of understanding.
(rejection) (dismay) as she beat her tail against the ground and emitted a bouquet of rejection.
(question) I rubbed my belly against the ground and dashed backwards.
She snarled at me and turned around. I followed her but she knew these woods better than I. When she dashed into the river, I gave up and watched her emerge on the other side. Her scentlessness, like any woman’s silence, communicated volumes.
I came back twice that summer, but the scents had fractured and faded to denote her absence.
What the encounter gave me were more questions. She had an established vocabulary and had undergone a similar process of education but chose it to reject my overtures.
The rejection stung and I retreated into a deep melancholy.
An interesting aside with clinical lycanthropy was in the seventeenth century was the belief it was caused by an excess of the humour relating to it, a black bile which left the eyes sunken and tongue dry. When I slipped back into my human form, I felt it for the first time.
Separation. My father would have understood it. It was part of his inheritance, along with his nose and the potential for intelligence. I drove back to the house, to the laboratory and wrote about what it felt to be alone.
Sometimes it takes another person to do it to you.
‘I had boyfriends like that.’ Kelly said.
He frowned but the corners of his mouth turned up.
‘Men have to deal with the burden of performance all the time. I just have a larger share than some and the consequences of failure are heavy.’ he said.
She took his hand.
‘You’ve not failed me yet. Even if this counts as kidnapping.’ she said.
He chuckled and shook his head.
‘I thought of this as a prolonged stroll through the woods.’ he said.
He squeezed her hand and looked down as they continued to walk. He patted his stomach and suggested they find ground for the night. He had cured some of the venison for jerky but he offered to hunt for something fresh. She squeezed his hand, registering the hidden tension which made his forearms a taut bundle and told him she would like that.
They found a stretch of level ground, isolated from above and fringed by thick, old trees. Kelly took the tomahawk and gathered wood whilst John walked ahead and she heard the sharp intake of breath before he disappeared from her sight.
Gregor handed the tablet over to Grant and picked out a protein bar from his jacket. His grey eyes narrowed as he peered through the trees.
‘They know this place better than us.’ he said.
Grant increased the magnification on the fibre-optic camera. The drone had another forty minutes of power left before it would need a charge and so far, it had given a general sense of their direction. There were signs of camp being made and from there, it made regular patrols and sent images back to the tablet.
‘They do, but Jasper is sending out the other team and they’ll bring more equipment.’ he said.
Gregor bit into the protein bar with a quiet distaste as he walked up the hill.
‘They burned the briefcase, after that it all feels a little too personal. One thief in the wind, what’s that to anyone?’ he said.
Grant furrowed his forehead.
‘It’s a matter of reputation. Yours and mine, Jasper’s, and who he works for.’ he said.
Gregor chewed and nodded as they carried on following the trail, such as it was.
‘Trust it she finds a fucking Grizzly Adams out here, though.’ he said
Grant sighed and nodded as he watched the drone come back to them. Gregor was unburdened by command, and he had not heard the shrill notes which emerged in Jasper’s voice. There were massive things going on underneath it all, and he had to go and enforce those commands without understanding them. The money was good and it was all Grant concerned himself with. A few days in a forest was better than chronic diarrhea in the desert. It didn’t matter how well a man knew the land around him, they had intention, money and time on their side and it would out in their favour.
Gregor stopped and looked through the set of binoculars at the remains stacked by the tree. He made his way towards it as he gripped his rifle for reassurance.
‘Who needs that much meat? He said.
Grant landed the drone and plugged it into the battery charger as he watched Gregor kick the pile of bones and organs with a strangled cry of disgust.
They had found something at last. Grant saw the tight look of concern on Gregor’s face and smiled as his phone hummed with an alert which he took out and read with a surge of triumph.
TEAM 2 ENROUTE TO LOCATION. LOGISTICS ADDRESSED.
He decided to hold off telling him as he walked towards him and the scattered bones.
(The suggestions for a series title are welcome and in return I will name a future character after you, fate to be determined)