Pack and Loser

At dusk, when the summer flowers closed up and the bees and butterflies also headed home, there was no one to see in the baby forest, and Greg preferred it that way. Oh, fine enough to not see the animals from a Bangkok zoo wending through undergrowth from an Argentine's private garden: but it was not seeing people that called Greg to the above-ground walk. The Yellowstone Memorial proper was entirely below ground, but it would be years before the ecology could recover from the second Korean War, and until then, paths for Man and his machines would be a pleasantly necessary evil. Brief glimpses of hopping rabbits presaged Greg's return home, as they fled predators absent since the Great Sterilization. Some would be eaten by hawks, unaware that the canopy which would shelter them had not yet grown. But they were without other predators, and their numbers had to be limited somehow, until the lupus project resurrected the wolves, and Greg did what he could towards both ends.

In a fit of good sense, the Memorial's design team had realized that air exchangers, stairwells, and elevator heads could never be made to look like things that ought to be in a forest, and opted instead for the most artificial and grating sharp-edged architecture available. Everybody hated the twentieth-century bunker look, so Greg approved: it would almost certainly, and somewhat gleefully, be demolished as soon as an excuse to do so could be found. In the meantime, it made his anthrophobic wanderings more convenient. Like every entrance in the Memorial, the unsecured outer door had to be closed before the retinal-scanning inner door could be opened, and the space in between seethed with light at frequencies incimical to Anthrax-L. The napalm cleansing had not destroyed every spore, so the precautions -- including the over-pressure system that popped Greg's ears as he entered the stairwell -- were checked regularly. In fact, because fire-damaged spores had longer incubation times, staff were discouraged from having visitors -- not, Greg reflected as he unlocked his door -- that he would ever have any.

Having returned early to take a nap, Greg didn't turn on the lights, avoiding the lonely recliner with practiced ease on his way to the kitchen, where he frowned at the stove before picking a bag of cookies off the counter. He'd be eating powerbars out on the secure range tonight -- the new cubs were to hunt for the first time -- so nutrition wasn't an issue, and he didn't much like cooking. A cookie in his mouth, Greg took off his shoes and socks before entering his bedroom, leaving the latter in the former on the tile floor. It was hard enough maintaining the moss; he didn't want to have to regrow it.

He'd developed the habit of sleeping on moss back in kindergarten at Rock Creek Elementary. After a confused truck-bomber had blown up half the school, the county decided to move it away from Stone River Prepatory and the president's daughter, as well as further back from the road. The only land available bordered on a national park, so the school's rear door opened directly onto an old-growth forest. Never very active, Greg would slip away during recess and sleep between the roots of the massive oaks. He'd dream that the trees talked to him and were his friends, and he'd wake up a bit less lonely than before. It's less that his peers deliberately excluded him so much as didn't notice him, since he never played their games. Games that would later include hooky and girls, and later still drinking and schmoozing. "The world," he'd once told a psychiatrist, "is enough for me."

The Memorial's secure range enclosed a small patch of scrub forest in the Old Park that had been spared from the Anthrax-L by the same coincidences of geography that made it possible to restrain the wolves' roaming without fences. Videos from the Old Park's reintroduction had made it clear that the wolves would rather lose teeth than stop trying to chew through a cage, and construction had begun as soon as the arborealists had completed their survey. But the range was too small to support a pack, and the wardens who kept it stocked swore the wolves were getting smarter every year. Soon, they said, they'd run out ways to release prey without them finding out.

The pack guarded its cubs jealously, which boded well for their eventual return to the wild, but made the idea of direct observation impractical. Drones met an astonishing variety of ill ends in the rugged terrain, and those quiet enough to sneak up on a wolf inevitably ran out of power just as they got close. So Greg came out to watch in person, wearing clothes he never took inside, and scrubbed off the smells of humanity with dirt and leaves around the bend from the northern gate. He snuck past the guard -- if she saw him, the wolves surely would -- and ambled toward the den, dug among a tumble of rocks under a tree near the eastern edge of the range. Stopping well out of scent, with the wind blowing up from the south, Greg knelt behind a large boulder with a commanding view of the slope and plugged his nightvision goggles into his backpack. From its other pocket, he withdrew a tethered earpiece, and after adjusting it, murmured, "Comm check."

"Confirmed," replied the operator, "Central is watching; visuals are good." A pause. "Logging your entrance to the secured range."

Greg climbed the boulder and settled in for a long wait.

Three hours later, he slid his nightvision goggles up his forehead and sighed. The pack had left a sub-adult at the den, but he'd seen nothing of the cubs or or their parental escorts. After resettling the goggles, he looked back under his shoulder for a foothold, and froze. Despite the earpiece's amplifying microphones, and Central's monitoring, he hadn't been alerted as the pack surrounded him. Slowly, he tripped the remote alarm and then gently slid off the boulder and rolled over, baring his neck. The alpha female approached, and Greg had to work to tear his eyes away, to offer no challenge to her dominance. Many heartbeats passed too loudly before she bit open Greg's collar and howled.

After the following silence, all the quieter for having been shattered, Greg heard the scuffles of the pack moving away. Waiting until the last sound faded, he opened his eyes to discover that he was not alone. From the boulder, a cub watched him. "We'll call you Sits-Forever," it said. "I am Talker-To-Animals."

"My pleasure," Greg said automatically, "I'm sure."

"Howls-First wishes to discuss cows with you," the cub said.

"What?" Greg sat up.

"Howls-First," the cub repeated, "wishes to discuss cows with you."

Greg's mind finally caught up with his mouth, and he asked: "How do you speak English?"

"Very well, Sits-Forever." The cub hopped off the boulder and stopped before going under the trees. "The pack calls. We must go."

"No," Greg said, standing to follow, "how did you learn it?"

"Two-legged animals point at things and make noises. Eventually, we decided there was a connection." The cub continued towards the center of the range, moving from tree to tree.

"Hold on a second." Greg touched his earpiece, murmured: "Central, could you play back the last few minutes?"

The operator chuckled. "I'm hearing it too. The Director is on her way."

Greg released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding and turned to the cub.

The cub stared back a moment. "Yes?"

"Let's go."

With a start, Greg realized he'd been wordlessly following the cub for several minutes. On his second try, he forced out: "Do all of you talk?"

The cub shook his head and went under a log, speaking as Greg stepped over it. "No. Only the cubs speak. We all understand, though."

"So," uh, "I talk to Howls-First, and you talk to me?"

The cub shook his head again. "You talk to the pack, and I talk to you."

"The pack?" Greg stumbled on something, made a lot of noise recovering. "I don't think that's a good idea."

The cub looked over his shoulder as he detoured around another boulder. "Why not?"

Greg looked at the stars rather than the cub: "I just can't deal with large groups of people."

The cub snorted. "You never have." Hearing Greg stop in his tracks, he corrected himself: "That is, I talk to animals."

Greg shook his head, trying to adjust. "That's not much better."

"I mean -- you'll see." He started walking again. "The pack isn't what you mean by people."

"No," Greg said, ducking a branch, "they're more dangerous."

"And who," asked the cub as it ducked under prickly bush that would scratch Greg's legs, "burned the land beyond the range?"

Greg had nothing to say.

But the cub replied anyway: "Howls-First is worried."

"Worried?" Were the wardens not doing their jobs?

The cub stopped at the empty end of an oval clearing half-filled by a pile of rocks similar to the pack's den. "She counts the deer and the rabbit and the elk and the squirrel and comes up short," the cub said, "and to depend on anyone outside the pack gnaws at her spleen like a beaver at his tree." Greg was pretty sure there were no beavers on the range, and was about to ask, when the cub continued: "Especially on animals. And we look past the fence and see no place fit for people. But places fit for cows, and horses, and other beasts for prey." He growled and lay down. "Or so she says, Sits-Forever. I don't understand it at all."

"Howls-First has great wisdom, Speaker-to-Humans."

"That is not who I am, Sits-Forever."

"And my name is Greg, Talker-to-Animals."

The cub flicked his ears towards the clearing. "The pack waits."

From the far end of the clearing, it was harder to tell that Greg's first step into the clearing came with exceeding reluctance, but the glances off to either side -- where the rest of the pack waited -- did not stem from curiosity. His second step came a little easier, with some eagerness to put some distance between him and his audience, but he stopped after his third, having realized that Hows-First and her mate, and their cubs, lay among the rocks. A certain fish-like opening and closing of the mouth rendered evident the absence of a thought to voice, and the hesistancy to speak at all: he might, after all, say something wrong.

"Howls-First tells you to speak freely, Greg," came the cub's voice.

Greg closed his eyes and fell back on convention: "My name is Greg Unsel, and I run the Lupine Operations Directorate here at the Memorial." Umm, "I'm not sure if you know what that means, but if you said we were arranged in packs of packs, I'd be like Howls-First for a a pack, and in the pack of pack leaders. I'm supposed to be in charge of everything to do with wolves -- with you -- but I guess I'm not anymore. I don't think I can say I run your lives if you're intelligent and can talk, and I can't, and it would be stupid to try, and I don't want to be stupid, right?" Greg trailed off, to silence, into the stillness. As if the teleconference had been disconnected and the avatars frozen.

As the silence grew longer, and the stillness more empty, worries and doubts crept out from under the rocks and behind the trees: the hidden invective of the polite, uncertainty about sincerity; the seduction of lies; and the conviction that nobody cares. Greg pulled off his nightvision goggles and stared at the moon. But no; there were no people here.

"Howls-First asks what your pack's goal is."

"To ensure the prosperity of wolves in Yellowstone National Memorial," Greg quoted automatically, "and in other places and numbers sufficient for an indefinitely self-sustaining population." He pleaded: "But we didn't expect sentience!" Again a silence and a stillness; and Greg redonned his goggles, but the pack was still there.

"Tell us, then," spoke the cub for Howls-First, "what your pack's goal will be."

"I don't know. Your genes on the 'net, so I don't know."

"Howls-First," came the icy reply, "reminds you that people do not wear pants."

And Greg couldn't take it, and laughed, tension blowing off in a series of paintings, "Wolves in Skirts," "Wolves Playing Poker," but part-way through "Lupine Fashion Model," Greg abruptly quieted, the pack close enough to see. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean it!" he said, "it's just that you thought j-e-a-n-s and I meant g-e-n-e-s, and it was really funny." And the wolves stopped advancing, but did not retreat. "Or maybe it wasn't, really. I wasn't laughing at you, I promise."

Howls-First growled, and the cub said nothing until the others finished backing into the treeline. "What are g-e-n-e-s genes, then?"

Greg recalled his own introduction to genetics: "You grow, Talker-to-Animals, but you do not tell yourself how to grow, do you? And does the seedling tell the tree how its branches are to spread? Genes are tiny parts of your flesh, in every part of your body, that tell it how to grow. By changing the genes of animals similar to you, my pack made yours, because all this --" Greg gestured at the Memorial "-- was once green and yours and we wish it to be green again. And you are far more than we expected."

The cub wagged his tail, amused. "Suprising eloquence, from one can't deal with large groups of people."

Greg flushed, but carried on. "But you," he said, gesturing in a circle, "you in particular I think we would adopt, wards of the Memorial, since you're under eighteen." He paused to gather this thoughts and repeated himself: "We would treat your cubs as our cubs, and your hunters would be welcome on our lands."

"But that," said the cub for Howls-First, "is only your hope. What else may happen to us?"

Greg shook his head. "I'm sorry, I don't know. Something like this would go to the president, the UN -- the leader of the strongest and largest pack of packs." He stepped toward Howls-First. "I could bring you voice computers, and you could learn from them."

"The talking boxes?" asked the cub. "I've seen your pack using them when they deliver prey."

Greg remembered to keep his mouth shut when he smiled. So that's how... "Yes. Talking boxes with many answers."

This produced another extended silence and stillness, during which Greg touched his earpiece and murmured: "Director?"

"The voice comps are a good idea," she said. "We'll take the daycare center's; they're already running on batteries and wireless. We just got our lawyer out of bed, and I'll start him on the adoption papers once he shows up."

Greg shifted his weight, replied: "How long do we have before the media shows up?"

The Director sighed. "They already have. Our comms weren't encrypted; security just never thought about it. I've changed that," she said, but lowered her voice anyway: "They want to talk to you, soonest. The horse's mouth, and all that. Listen, we could shape opinion on this, make it what it should be."

A room full of reporters... "Someon from public relations can't handle it?"

"I've heard rumors that you have a," menacing pause, "problem, Greg. If I had reason to believe them, I could not in good faith keep you here."

"The newsies will eat you alive!"

Sweetly: "For transferring you to a high-profile post in Washington?" Greg dropped his hand, suddenly understanding that she had only nominated him for the Lupine Chair because she thought him easily controlled.

The cub spoke. "Sits-Forever?"

Greg murmured, "Hold on," and looked over: "Yes?"

"Howls-First has renamed you."


"To Speaker-Among-Animals. You will represent our pack to yours."

My pack? Greg grinned, forgetting to cover his teeth: "Let them know I'm coming in. I'll need a shower." Ignoring the reply, he turned off his comm and addressed the pack: "What should I say to the animals?"