Orbit. Emily Horner.

28 Dec

Orbit

 

All that winter me and the other girls in the pack tried to tell ourselves that nothing was wrong. It was just because Lynette had left; it was just because of that blizzard we had to dig ourselves out of. And then Jamie, who’d come up from the village a few months ago, fifteen years old, still enamored of hot baths and pretty shoes, complained about our watercress and our boiled bark; and Stella snapped, “I haven’t seen you out hunting.”
Jamie walked out into the snow. I followed, running, with a coat and a lantern. Angry that Stella had said it and angry at the fifty times I’d thought the same thing.
“I should go back home,” she said when I caught up with her. She wiped at her nose with a mitten crusted in frozen snot. “She’s right. All I do is complain. All those stories they tell about the wolf-girls. How they’re so fierce and so loyal and so dedicated to each other. How they’re the ones who’re going to save people from the satellites. It’s the kind of dream you’re supposed to grow out of.”
“Stella hasn’t seen you out hunting because you don’t know how,” I said, shamed by it. When Lynette was in charge it was always – Jo, show Sara how to set the trap lines. Jo, show Stella how to find dry wood. And all this time I’d never said, Jamie, come hunting with me.
“Come on. Let’s see if we can’t find us something better than watercress.”
We took arrows with us, and bows – a big one, and the little one all us wolf-girls had learned on with our weak village-girl arms. We walked for miles up the ridges of the hills, on paths that were covered in half an inch of snow, and I pointed out to her the footprints of rabbits and grouse, the places where deer had chewed bark from trees. I adjusted her stance, the way she held her fingers on the arrow. Her arrows flew wide when she surprised a rabbit in the underbrush and scrambled for her bow.
She stomped ahead of me, and despite the darkness widened the gap between us until she disappeared over the top of the next ridge. “Jo!” she yelled, one long minute later. “Jo, come over here.”
I lengthened my stride. Could be a bear, a human corpse, a lacerated hand or broken leg.
What I found instead was – at first I wasn’t sure, even as I brought the lantern down the length and breadth of it. A rectangular metal body, as big as the vans I’d seen in junkyards or lying along the side of the road, part smooth panels and part crumpled peaks and valleys. A long flat wing that made me think of the angels in old books stretched out on either side.
She was the one who finally said, “That’s a satellite.”
It was what I’d been thinking, but what I couldn’t say. It seemed blasphemous to think that our enemies, the machine-minds of the satellites who had overthrown human civilization and almost wiped us out, were really nothing more than a bucket of metal bits, propped up with vast panels to catch the sun’s light.
“We should go tell Stella and the others,” Jamie said.
“No,” I said. A moment’s mad impulse. “Don’t tell anybody.”
On the way home I managed to put an arrow in a woodcock, and Jamie shot the fluff off a rabbit, which was all she talked about when we made it back to the little barn where all us wolf-girls huddled around the hearth.
That night I dreamed the darkness of space. The glare of full sun on those solar panels. Blinks of light flashing from one satellite to another, transmitting data as if to say,
Hello. I miss you.
I dreamed whole lives of people – people from the old days. Cameras, in their cars and in their schools, watched fights with lovers, watched sudden crunches of metal that ended in screaming and sirens.
I hiked up the ridge to the satellite the next day, on my way to check the trap lines. “What is it you want to make me see?” I asked it. “You’re trying to get me thinking there’s nothing worth saving in our world?”
I aimed a kick at its front panel of lights and switches, stopping short with a couple inches to spare. Nothing moved, nothing lit up. There was nothing to make me think it had heard me.
The trap lines were empty. I kept walking, not sure what I was looking for until my feet led me to Lynette’s door.
“I found something yesterday,” I said as I was shaking the snow off my boots. “Up in the hills when I took the new girl hunting.”
“Good something, bad something?”
Lynette cut me a slab of apple cake, spread over thick with butter. I wolfed it in two bites and it caught in my throat, stuck to my tongue. In these dark corners of February I almost forgot the memory of sweetness. Her head tilted in disapproval, but she gave me another piece.
“Don’t know good or bad, but it’s giving me strange dreams.” My eyes kept wandering to the hand-woven table mats; I was trying to imagine myself in a life like this one, the kind of life that a wolf-girl could make for herself after leaving her pack. Even in the winters when every thought sharpened around warmth and food, I didn’t know who I’d be without them. “A satellite came down. All in one piece, not all burnt up like they usually are.”
“What did the others say?”
“Nothing yet. I asked the other girl to keep it quiet.”
She leaned back, arms crossed on top of her belly, and gave me a small nod.
“Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I can figure out on my own, though.”
“No need to untangle the whole thing right away,” Lynette said.
That made my teeth itch. Two years ago, when I was new in the pack and nothing but sharp angles, I’d have laid into her. Our years in the wilderness, the winters that we shivered through, the trance-bonfires where we tried to speak with those voices up there in the sky – that was all so we could find some kind of a truce or an understanding with the minds that lived in the satellites. Maybe this was our only chance to do something about it. But I had no idea what that something might look like.
As I was putting my winter things back on I couldn’t help turning back to her. “You miss it?”
“Always.” A pause, and then: “It wasn’t ever my intention to pass the reins over to Stella. But it takes teeth to lead a pack.”
I stood there, frozen in the middle of lacing my boots. It hadn’t ever crossed my mind that I could’ve fought for this.
“I don’t know what to do about the satellite.”
“There’s no one who can tell you that.”
I didn’t have any answer but the crunch of my boots over the old leaves and the snow.
#
A few days later, Stella showed up with a deer haunch she’d got from the pack upriver from us, and in the middle of all the celebrating announced, “There’s a satellite come down in the hills.”
I said nothing. I worked my knife down the back of the deer’s leg, separating skin from muscle and tendon. But Jamie got a look on her face like the vole under the hawk’s gaze, while it’s still too scared to run.
“You knew about this,” Stella said.
She barely moved her head in a way that didn’t mean either yes or no.
I spent too long thinking, deciding, then said, “I told her not to talk.”
“You didn’t think this was important to tell the rest of us?”
Stella took two steps toward me and at the same time I was thinking that she was my friend, that she was a good pack leader, I was thinking about the knife in my hand that was slicing through skin.
“Maybe too important to jump all over it right away.”
“Is that up to you to decide?”
I gripped the deer’s ankle and handed it to her without a word. Most of the blood had drained away or clotted, but the tissue over the muscles was still slick, barely warm with the animal’s heat.
I thought I knew something about being in a pack by then. You snarled at each other and you bared your teeth and when it was done you abided by what the pack leader said. Because it was where you belonged. If you stayed down in the village, or if you stayed by yourself, you didn’t get to hear the echoes of what goes through the satellites’ minds as they drifted across the sky. All of us had made that decision over and over, even on the days when we wished we were home.
The other girls looked at me like they were sniffing out the wind currents. Like I was, maybe, not the right friend to have. That night I found my own lonely corner for sleeping, and buried myself in the straw until it covered me over entirely. I dreamed I floated in the sky. Looked down on the villages of Cambodia or Laos or – different cities and countries, by now, from the ones in the encyclopedias from the old days.
I was going to lose this.
I was going to lose a thing I didn’t even understand. Was there a mind in there at all? Or was it a mind like the filaments of a spider-web, that only made sense with all its pieces reaching out to each other, working as one?
I imagined myself in the sky, blinking my strange heart to my siblings, and then tossed out of my orbit, flung to earth, alone.
#
In a single-file line we marched up the ridge. The morning sun glinted hard on the ice that had scabbed over the snow. We were armed with what we had found in the barn, and in the other caches and lockboxes: crowbars and screwdrivers and knives and even a chainsaw, powered by the little bits of gasoline we could occasionally scavenge for emergencies.
“What do we need a chainsaw for?” I said to no one in particular, trailing behind.
“Are you getting anywhere talking to it?” Stella asked. “The other pack didn’t. If we can take it apart. If we can see the guts of the thing. I don’t know.”
I couldn’t even argue with her. I was curious, too, and angry. The satellites had killed children, destroyed power plants and oil wells, destroyed the era – long before my own memories – when you could put your clothes to dry in a machine instead of praying for a sunny day, when you didn’t have to spend all of the fall chopping up wood to heat you through the winter. And we didn’t even know why. They didn’t feel pain, or sorrow, or anything. Right?
Only, when we got over the ridge and caught the first glimpse of the solar panels washed in light, there was something that changed. It was the look that crossed our faces when an owl’s wingbeats blotted out the moon, when we stumbled upon the elk with her little twin calves. Jamie dropped her screwdriver, and though she scrambled after it right away like it was a mistake, it looked to me like doubt.
The other girls tried to gather themselves up and working together, they hauled the satellite over to where they could get in there with their tools and their knives. They crowded in around it until I had an excuse to step back, stand guard, sometimes glancing over to see what they discovered, but when I did I saw nothing but the backs of five heads, kitted out in hats their mothers had knit or headbands their sisters had woven.
There was a groaning shriek, and the front panel came loose. It took five girls together, with their fingers all hooked underneath it, to shimmy it away from the case of the satellite.
I had to pull Jamie away, at last, to get a look inside. A tangle of wires and cases and lights gone dark. All of it mysterious, all of it full of secrets that the rest of us would never uncover. These girls, hovering, nervous, still hungry for the wolf-girl stories whispered between them as children.
“I wanted to do better by it.”
“It’s not a person,” Stella said. “It’s a broken machine. And it’s useless to us like this.”
“Useless if it’s hacked into bits, too.”
“It’s my pack,” Stella said, but we were all looking among ourselves now like we weren’t quite sure if it was anyone’s.
It took teeth, to lead a pack.
I broke my eyes away from the bulk of folded metal. “I’m going up to check the trap lines. I could use some extra hands.”
I started walking. With my rabbit-fur hood up I could only see in front of my face, and I knew I would lose if I turned to see who was following me. I could hear the big river in the distance, the one that hadn’t frozen over yet, and the “dee-dee-dee” of the chickadees looking for crumbs. And softly, like a fragile and untrustworthy thing, the sound of small boots on the snow.

Emily Horner

 

 

snowstorm-002

7 Responses to “Orbit. Emily Horner.”

  1. seraph4377 December 30, 2016 at 16:40 #

    I am deeply intrigued. This story feels more like an early chapter of a novel, or part of a series, than something that stands alone. I have so many questions! Do the “trance-bonfires” have any effect – i.e., are we in a science-fantasy world where cyber-psi or the Force exists? Are there criteria, tests or initiation rites to join the wolf-girls, or is it a matter of “Welcome to the pack. Keep up, or you’ll be left behind”? Is there some upper age limit to membership in the pack (creating more parallels with the Lost Boys), or is it simply a matter of losing the edge or getting tired? How long ago did the machine apocalypse happen? Recently enough that history hasn’t entirely slipped into legend, it seems. But has it done so partially? Are the satellites sentient at all, or are they perhaps being blamed for long-dead human masters? If they are sentient, are they continuing their war against humanity, or have they fallen silent for some reason? I could go on.

    But for this story, I’d say that things are starting to look up for the pack. Stella doesn’t understand what Lynette did and what Jo does, which is that teeth may be necessary to lead the pack, but they’re not sufficient.

  2. seraph4377 December 30, 2016 at 16:47 #

    Reblogged this on Dreams of the Shining Horizon and commented:
    An intriguing short story by my dear friend Emily Horner. The wolf-girls live in the wilderness of a post-apocalyptic future, doing what they can to resist the satellites that killed the old world. But there’s trouble in the pack…

  3. S J Smith December 30, 2016 at 20:24 #

    This is lovely!

  4. Emily Horner (@emhornerbooks) December 31, 2016 at 22:12 #

    Matt, if I have world enough and time I am hoping to write a whole book of short stories about Jo and the wolf-girls, so some of your questions may yet be answered!

    • seraph4377 January 1, 2017 at 12:22 #

      That would be great. By all means, keep me posted!

    • Patricia January 1, 2017 at 16:24 #

      I’m excited to see the rest of the cycle!

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