Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Mortality, Eternity
by Joseph Green

Absolute Pony
by Alisa Alering

Quisic Smith and the Russian Puzzle Doll
by Sean Monaghan

Clever Bubble
by Antha Ann Adkins

by Matthew Wuertz

To Walk the Earth
by Rebecca Birch

Five Stages of Future Grief
by Gary Cuba

Lost Planes, Lost River
by Michael Hodges

Funny Money
by Chet Gottfried

Insanity Machine
by Lawrence Buentello

Ten Minutes
by Eamonn Murphy


A Quantum Mind
by Eric M. Jones

What is Science?
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




Lost Planes, Lost River

By Michael Hodges

WILDLIFE SERVICES LOST ANOTHER Cessna, the third one in two months. Cessna 627 was piloted by Ronald D. Higgins, an experienced pilot with a good record in the air and a mixed record on the ground. 627 was outbound from Salt County Airport with a government shooter onboard. The shooter’s name was Eric Reecher, and his job was to gun down the wolves accused of killing a lamb on John Gardner’s sprawling Winding Aspen Ranch. The U.S. government subsidized such actions, and the Gardners were more than willing to accept. The Dollsy pack, as they were known, had killed a few sheep in the lowlands the past year, becoming the embodiment of evil to local ranchers.

FBI agent Mark Donaldson thumbed through a folder on a peeling desk in the Tecumseh police department. He grimaced as the local officers eyed him. Two things about the case tweaked him: recovery teams had not located Cessna 627, and the previous two planes had not shown any obvious mechanical issues except for the usual impact damage. The Lost River Range was a hundred miles long by fifty miles deep, and a man might disappear for weeks back there. So could a downed plane.

Donaldson stood from the thrift store chair and tossed the thin folder onto the desk.

“This all you have?” he asked Officer Ramil.

Ramil scowled from under his cowboy hat, his eyes sunken behind swollen cheeks. “Yup.”

Donaldson shook his head.

Ramil put his cowboy boot up on a chair and puffed his chest out.

Donaldson smirked. He couldn’t help but be amused at the overcompensation. These guys were desperate to project toughness to the point of absurdity. Many of the vehicles in the department lot even had bumper stickers bragging about killing animals or proclamations against the federal government. One of the stickers said, “Wolves, Smoke a Pack a Day.” The station parking lot was a real introduction to the personalities inside, a psychiatrist’s feast. The lot was almost all he needed to know about the people who’d be in his way. Tecumseh wasn’t a peaceful little town on the prairie, but rather a town seething with anger. At what? Who knows. But Donaldson saw it bristling under the skin of the locals. Despite the obvious natural beauty and mountain air, something was pissing everyone off. Maybe it was the constant wind that swept down from the Lost River Range. Maybe it was the isolation. A thousand people didn’t add up to a whole lot.

Nausea hit Donaldson, and he wondered if he wasn’t getting enough air at this new altitude. The cigar and cigarette smoke permeating the old police station didn’t help. The faded yellow plastic covering the ceiling lights blurred. So did the cracks in the red brick walls. The faces of the officers grew soft and featureless, and Donaldson felt a trickle of sweat on his forehead. An officer approached and spoke to him, but the words came out as unintelligible mush. Donaldson proceeded to the exit, extruding calmness. Someone opened the front door and when he stepped outside, he was back to normal except for a fading tightness in his lungs. Sure he was alone, Donaldson reached into his pocket, grasped his warm leather wallet, and slid out the photo of his family. He gazed at his wife Stacey and their three year old son Cole then slipped the photo back into his wallet.

The Lost River Range rose before him in the dusk, granite peaks braced with snowfields, tracing down to forested slopes and sagebrush lowlands. Sunset-colored clouds straddled green slopes, delivering pink rain to ponderosa and lodgepole pines.

Stunning country, he thought, savoring the clean air. It wasn’t like the air back home in Seattle, full of auto exhaust. Donaldson watched the clouds and their vibrant rain curtains float east over the range. Cricket sound encircled him and a gust of wind flapped his tie over his shoulder.

This was his fifth year on the job. By all accounts he was considered a rookie, as there were many others in the Seattle office who had far more experience. True, he had a tint of green, but his aptitude testing had revealed a distinct advantage over his peers. That’s why he was where he was at thirty-one.

Donaldson put his hands in his pockets and let the icy wind batter his frame. A grin crossed his face as he squinted. He felt sharply alive. The wind rocked him back on his feet and whipped sand into his mouth.

His grin changed to a frown.

Somewhere up there in those foreboding peaks, a group of terrorists was shooting down Cessnas that were flying in to kill wolves.


At seven a.m. word came over his interceptor radio that a scout had spotted Cessna 627 in a wooded ravine. He punched in the radioed coordinates and his laptop pulled up the location—Grievous Ravine in the southern portion of the range. Donaldson had already procured the services of a local helicopter pilot who’d retired from flying tourists around the Grand Canyon. The pilot was at his immediate call until matters were resolved.

After a quick drive to the western outskirts of Tecumseh, Donaldson reached the launch pad. The pilot’s name was Bob Enders, a slim man who didn’t fit the cliché of a helicopter pilot. He wore khakis, a Kohl’s button-up shirt, and not a speck of smudge or soot blemished his attire. His face was waxy clean, too.

With the blade-vortex interaction thundering above them, they lifted off above the Idaho prairie, the sagebrush swaying in the turbulence.

The sun glared through the cockpit, and beads of sweat matted their hair to their foreheads. Donaldson checked his watch. Not good. The objective was to get to the scene before the locals tainted it with their clumsiness.

“We’re at top speed?” he asked the pilot, pointing straight ahead at the massive peaks.

Enders shook his head. “This is all she’ll do.” Enders smiled at Donaldson and returned to chomping his Bubblicious. “First time out in Lost River Country I bet.”

Donaldson nodded.

“I’m not pretending to be some all-knowing local loudmouth, ’cause usually those fellas don’t know a God damned thing,” Enders said. “But I can tell you this is some strange country.” Enders eyes darted behind his pilot shades, as if broaching the subject would bring swift repercussion. “I do survey work for the county. A few times I’ve spotted colors that shouldn’t be there. Know what I mean?”

Donaldson shook his head. A shiver zigzagged along his spine. He didn’t turn the feeling away, but welcomed it. The sensation was part of being alive, part of breathing this new air and the spirit of the hunt.

“All kinds of colors,” Enders said. “We got a fella named Eckerson who’s good about astronomy down at the Thirsty Buffalo. He told me it was northern lights. Trust me, it wasn’t that. I’ve seen those. These lights were like lit up spider webs. The northern lights are kind of wispy, with curtains.”

Donaldson nodded and watched Enders chomp his gum.

“The lights were there above the mountains for about six seconds. I counted because I count everything on part of my OCD. Can’t help it. I’m countin’ right now. I even try to count the rotations of the blades.”

“Jesus,” Donaldson said. “Six seconds, then gone?”

Enders chomped and nodded.

“When was this?”

“Three months ago.”

The Lost River Range swallowed their tiny craft into its maw, all silver jagged peaks and talus slopes. Bits of clouds clung to the peaks like cotton caught on barbed wire. Below the rocks, icy blue torrents raced down to fingers of pine trees. The alpine lands.


The accident site was located two nautical miles from the top of Mt. Ellsworth, in a wooded ravine as advertised. Donaldson guessed the wreckage path at about 300 feet. The path was oriented on a heading of 2-2-3 magnetic. The aircraft had impacted a group of trees before coming to a stop. White and red paint was observed on a few of the tree limbs, matching the red propeller paint and the Cessna’s body paint. Both outboard wings exhibited crushing damage from contact with tree branches. The portside wing had peeled away from the fuselage like a tin can, exposing bundles of flight control wiring. The portside and starboard doors were ripped off, one visible in a crevasse about forty yards from the impact site.

He’d done his research on the way to Idaho, and this scene checked out as a typical crash landing. In the right front seat slumped the intact but lifeless body of Higgins. Reecher wasn’t so lucky. He’d cleared the cockpit and was split apart by a patch of sharp rocks just ahead of the Cessna’s final resting place. Flies buzzed his corpse and his intestines led into a clump of lodgepole pine.

“Dang, will you look at that,” Enders said, spitting onto the grey rocks.

“Probably a raccoon or bear,” Donaldson said. “We see this sort of thing all the time. Even feral cats will come take a bite.”

Donaldson was glad to be upwind of the wreck. He took in a sweet breath of mountain air, held out his hands, and watched them twitch. The wild country was affecting him, sparking his senses. Enders shot him a look and Donaldson used a twitching hand to wipe his forehead. The alpine sun had a way of hitting you harder than down low. Up here the rays were as fierce as a mountain lion. In Seattle, at sea level, it was like a dying campfire.

The contrast between sky, pines, and talus field was stunning, almost hyper-definition. He swallowed and walked over to the Cessna’s nose. The air wasn’t so pure anymore. Donaldson held his hand to his face and inspected the nose and windshield for bullet holes. Most of the windshield had peeled to portside but there was no indication of any projectile penetration. He took out his slim camera and snapped photos of the scene, then swapped the camera for a notepad.

Enders walked over and Donaldson put his hand up, palm out. “Please stay where you are, sir,” he said. “This is a potential crime scene and you’re about to contaminate it.”

“I’m doin’ the same damn thing you’re doing,” Enders said.

Donaldson grimaced. “Please just stay back, sir. No need for you to see this.”

Enders threw his hands up in the air and laughed while chomping his gum. “I am seeing it, you blowhard.”

Donaldson sighed. “Alright, don’t spit and don’t drag your feet,” he said. “And can you check the fuselage for bullet holes?”

“You bet,” Enders said, a spring in his step. “Always wanted to be a cop.”

Donaldson let a grin escape and walked the crash site perimeter, checking for footprints. There were none. He noticed a few coyote tracks, but nothing unusual. Bits of mica flecked the pebbles and glinted in the sun. A bead of sweat dropped onto his black shoe, and Donaldson swore it took longer than normal to fall.

Enders turned to Donaldson and squinted at him. “This high country can play tricks on you,” he said. “A man not used to such elevations can get sick real quick.”

“I’m not sick,” Donaldson said.

“Then why you starting at your shoe?”

Donaldson pulled out of the trance. “Checking for tracks,” he said.

“Well I can tell you the only tracks up here are animal tracks, and not of the Homo sapiens variety,” Enders said. “At least not very often.”

The men worked upslope of the craft, tracing the wreckage path.

“Keep an eye out for anything unusual,” Donaldson said.

After fifteen minutes of searching the ground, Enders waved Donaldson over.

Donaldson followed Enders’ pointing finger to a size fourteen boot print. It pointed north, up towards the immense cirque that hung above them in the crown of the mountains.

“Come on,” Donaldson said.

Enders looked behind him towards the chopper, where it rested on a flat piece of tundra. “She’ll be fine I suppose,” he said, directing it more at the chopper than anything else.

The two men hiked the rugged slope. Donaldson had to take frequent breaks. All his cardio work hadn’t prepared him for 9,000 feet. Each breath, each step higher corkscrewed his senses. For a moment he caught the musky scent of a deer, or maybe it was a bear. Wildflowers carpeted their path and numerous butterflies bandied from flower to flower, some chasing each other and mating in midair. Veils of water trickled down glistening chutes where insects buzzed and verdant grasses swayed in the breeze. At the crest the men stared at the spectacle before them. A 200 acre lake filled the cirque, its water tinted milky green with glacier melt. Chunks of glaciers protruded from the milk. On the far shore metamorphic rock spiked thousands of feet to snowcapped peaks. A golden eagle soared above the upper talus, framed by a sky of the deepest blue Donaldson had ever seen. At the far end of the lake a waterfall at least 1,000 feet high plummeted, stirring up the milk and whatever chunks of ice remained in that shaded section.

“Grievous Lake,” Enders said. “The backpackers talk about it a lot.”

“No wonder,” Donaldson said, scanning the shoreline. It was the kind of place he’d like to take Cole someday, a father and son adventure where they could cook hot dogs and maybe s’mores, too.

A game trail followed the lakeshore, and Donaldson proceeded along it to the east. Before he could get far, a blast of wind hit him square and knocked him on his ass. Enders teetered over to him, his shirt ruffling hard.

“Holy cow, you okay?” Enders shouted, reaching out a hand while balancing himself on a rock ledge. Enders helped him up and they tried the trail again. Another wind blast knocked them back. Massive chunks of ice stirred like unmoored vessels. The azure sky gave way to dark clouds, and in these clouds snake-tongued lighting flickered from peak to peak.

“Impossible,” Donaldson said.

“The chopper,” Enders said, gesturing down trail with his head. “The Lost is known for wicked storms, trust me on that one.”

Back inside the cockpit Enders opened throttle, reached the proper rpm, then maneuvered the collective. The ill-fated Cessna grew smaller and smaller as a wind gust slammed the helicopter, pushing it hard to the west.

“She wants us out,” Enders said, grabbing the cyclic with more attention than he had on the way in.

“She?” Donaldson asked, preparing to take a drink of his bottled water.

“Mother Nature,” Enders said.

Fat rain drops pattered the cockpit window. The helicopter shuddered as they proceeded through effective transition lift. Half a mile ahead Donaldson observed another aircraft—the Sheriff’s department helicopter turning back towards Tecumseh.

The bodies of Eric Reecher and Ronald Higgins were not recovered until the next day. Two weeks later, with a cold trail and no evidence of foul play, Donaldson headed to the Boise airport for his trip back to Seattle. As he walked past the airport souvenir shop, he saw a stuffed toy wolf, its color matching the talus fields of the Lost River Range. He purchased the toy for his son and proudly carried it with him into the departure gate. Soon Idaho would be below him, the killer’s trail cold as spring snowmelt.


Two years later Donaldson got a call he never wanted to get. Another Wildlife Service Cessna had gone down in the mountains east of Tecumseh. Once again the Cessna’s target was the Dollsy Pack. The wolf pack had allegedly taken a sheep from Winding Aspen Ranch, enraging the Gardners. After the Cessna had gone missing, John Gardner decided to take matters into his own hands. He’d gathered two of his ranch employees, Paul Simms and Terry Winston and embarked into the Lost River Range on horseback, rifles drawn.

They never came back.

The horses did though, and with them Gardner’s camp supplies intact in the saddle packs. They’d never made it past the first night.

Donaldson pulled into the familiar two acre yard just west of Tecumseh. A log cabin and landing pad were the sole man-made structures. He parked his rental and approached a thin man who was tending to a helicopter. The man’s face was waxy clean.

“You again,” Enders said, chomping his grape Bubblicious and grinning.

Donaldson shook Enders’ hand. He shook a lot of men’s hands. This was sincere.

“How’s the boy?” Enders asked as he windexed the cockpit window.

“Great, great,” Donaldson said. “I told him about your services and he said he wanted a ride.”

Enders laughed. “Anytime.”

As the blade-vortex interaction thundered, the men’s faces turned serious. Despite the missing Cessna, Wildlife Services insisted the Dollsy Pack be taken out. They’d summarized the incidents as freak accidents, and noted the wide range of years as proof. The inability of Wildlife Services to kill the pack was sending many of the locals into a fit, and Donaldson wondered if their stubborn insistence wasn’t in part due to political pressure. He and his special agent in charge could’ve halted any new flight. But they’d conferred, and the result was a plan that some might find rather tasteless, but it was a plan nonetheless: Donaldson and Enders were to observe Wildlife Service Cessna 824 as it carried out its orders. Donaldson had concluded the killer would only reveal himself under such conditions. He and Enders would trail the Cessna as it rose into the mountains. Madness, perhaps. But sometimes madness brings results, like a rough spring storm brings up earthworms.

With dusk approaching, they flew east towards John Gardner’s ranch. According to Wildlife Services, the Dollsy Pack used the fading light to emerge from the alpine realms down to the eastern side of the ranch. This made sense to Donaldson, as his cousin photographed animals as a hobby. During family reunions, he’d talk about sunset and sunrise as the best times to observe wildlife.

As the landscape absorbed the pastel hues of sunset, Cessna 824 appeared at the edge of the ranch, tilting its wings and making slow turns. The gunner was strapped into a special seat portside, the door wide open. 824 made several slow passes at lower elevation, then climbed upslope. Enders accelerated the helicopter and followed 824 at a distance of one-half nautical mile. The Cessna pilot was outstanding, taking maneuvers close to the ground that were steady and sure. It was obvious they’d done this before, a smooth and competent killing force making methodical sweeps up mountain. Enders followed, and Donaldson watched him as he mouthed something—maybe he was counting everything like he said he did.

The mountains clashed before them, intimidating in their grandeur. Falls shimmered in alpine cirques and cascaded down to rivulets that fed eager pine trees and lush grasses. A group of elk raced into a patch of subalpine fir, the big antlers of the bull swaying back and forth. Then a flash came from the Cessna’s portside, and Donaldson heard a pop. The air was so clean he smelled the gunpowder a few seconds later. Ahead of them, portside, were five members of the Dollsy Pack. Two of the wolves were jet black, one all white, the other two pepper grey. They loped across an alpine meadow, fur rustling and tongues lolling.

Another flash from 824 and the scent of gunpowder. The wolves ran on, escaping the first volley.

“Damn,” Enders said. “I don’t wanna see this.”

Donaldson tuned him out as he scanned the rugged landscape with a pair of Zeiss optics. He was looking for anything unusual—a glint of polished metal, or clothing.

“Holy shit!” Enders yelled, jerking the cyclic to the left. The helicopter lurched as the seat restraints tugged at Donaldson. When he looked back out the cockpit window, an erratic web of pulsing light hurtled towards 824.

“What the hell?” Enders shouted.

The crackling light enveloped the Cessna, and Donaldson couldn’t believe it when the propeller came to a complete stop, as if a child had placed his finger on the propeller of a balsa rubber band wind up plane. The Cessna didn’t attempt to glide. Instead it nosedived straight towards the ground, all systems dead, with no movement inside the cockpit. Donaldson tried to trace the light’s path, and his gaze fell upon a narrow talus slope bordering green alpine grasses. He concentrated on a certain crevasse and thought he saw movement, but whatever it was had disappeared.

Enders maneuvered the helicopter to the west and followed the plane as it started to glide.

“Come on,” he said. “Pull out! Pull out!”

824 ignored his pleas and plummeted to the mountain. It skipped across a house-sized boulder and flipped down the talus until it rested nose down against a row of whitebark pine. The shooter’s lifeless body cartwheeled to a stop next to the plane, along with all kinds of gear that had escaped the cockpit.

Donaldson ignored the Cessna and scanned the area for movement. He was certain 824 had been struck on its starboard side, so he focused to the east, higher up slope.

“Son of a bitch,” Enders said. “Never seen anything like this.”

“You’re not alone in that,” Donaldson said.

“I’m putting her down. They need our help,” Enders said.

Donaldson nodded while continuing his scan. This time he caught something, although he had the distinct sensation he wished he hadn’t seen anything at all. At first he thought it might be a reflection, but the intensity was too high. It came from a dark crevasse up mountain, racing towards the helicopter at astonishing speed, expanding with every nanosecond.

“Turn!” Donaldson yelled.

“What are you—”

The helicopter shuddered as the crackling phosphorescence enveloped it. The instrument panel dials spun and intolerable beeping rattled the cockpit.

“Hang on to your ass!” Enders shouted.

Donaldson braced himself for impact, the rugged alpine world spinning towards the craft and inducing nausea. He thought of Cole and Stacey back in Seattle, comfortable in their home, maybe even watching the Mariner’s game, or the “Marners” as Cole called them. He might never see them again. He was but a gnat up here, a fragile plaything and he knew that going in. His jaw buckled so hard he was certain he cracked a tooth, maybe more. His mind fuzzed and the smell of oil filled his nostrils. Gasping came from his left as the rotors winded down from above. Donaldson turned, triggering pain down his back. Enders was clutching his chest, eyes darting, blood trickling from one nostril.

“You alright?” Donaldson asked, wincing.

“Think I’m having a heart attack,” Enders said.

Donaldson unbuckled his harness and checked Enders’ pulse.

“Heart rate is normal,” he said. “I think you broke a rib. It can hurt when you breathe.”

“Thanks,” Enders said, his facial muscles contorting.

Donaldson looked around the helicopter as smell of fuel grew stronger.

“Time to get you out of here,” Donaldson said. He unbuckled Enders and helped him out of the cockpit. The portside skid rested on a thick matt of grass next to a creek, while the starboard skid crumpled against a boulder. Had they landed sideways in the creek, water could’ve pooled in the cockpit and drowned them.

Donaldson helped Enders away from the craft, towards a clump of whitebark pine. Enders limped and winced, then collapsed against a mossy boulder.

“Wouldn’t you know it,” he said, chest heaving. “All these years and my first real crash. I guess I could always taste it up here. Knew it was coming, but that doesn’t help prepare.”

Donaldson placed his hand on Enders’ shoulder. “Could’ve been much worse,” he said.

“Yes, for us. But I’ve had that girl for almost forty-five years.”

“Just metal and plastic,” Donaldson said.

“She’s much more than that,” Enders said.

A gust of cold wind took Enders’ last word, and silence filled the space between them.

Donaldson shivered and headed back to the helicopter. “I’ll try the radio.” He reached into the cockpit and flipped the power switch, but the unit did not power on. He tried again. No luck. He took his bottled water and returned to Enders in the patch of gnarled whitebark pine.

“Radio’s dead,” he said. “Whatever shot us took it out.”

“You ever seen anything like that?” Enders asked, his face still showing signs of pain.

Donaldson shook his head.

“You’re not alone in that,” Enders said, forcing a grin.

Donaldson helped Enders take a sip of water, then checked their surroundings. “I’m hiking out to get help. Can you walk?”

“Don’t think so. Best if I wait here.”

Donaldson nodded and bunched up his pant leg, revealing a holster and his Glock 22. He unsheathed his firearm and handed it to Enders. “Ever use one of these?” he asked.

“You bet.”

“Good. I’ll be back as fast as I can.” Donaldson set the bottled water at Enders’ side, then handed him his camera. “If you see anything unusual, take photos.” Donaldson walked off, then turned back. “I almost forgot,” he said. He dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a fresh package of grape Bubblicious. “Found it in the chopper.” He placed the gum in Enders’ right fist and walked away. As he approached fifty yards, he heard Enders shouting behind him.

“Donaldson, I told you these mountains are strange, and a man can get sick real easy! But we’ll survive! You and me, Donaldson, we’re a team!”

A gust of wind hushed the last shout. Donaldson nodded. They were a team.

Dusk came faster than he wanted it to, and so did the snow. It came in big flakes, almost the size of the delicate snowflake cookies his grandmother used to bake by the dozens. If you picked one of them up wrong, they’d crumble in your hands. Donaldson checked his hands. They were stinging red. He stuck them in his pants but it didn’t do much good. He drank from the numerous creeks, but the water was cold enough to trigger brain cramps. Fading light filtered through the snowflake patterns, igniting the ice crystals with every color imaginable. As the color reflections intensified, so did the frequency of flakes, and soon a quantifiable silence enveloped the land. He heard every lone sound as if it came from a pair of audiophile earphones. His own clumsy footsteps on the slick terrain were thunderous. Random blasts of wind shuddered his core and panicked the flakes. Soon restless peak light gave in to the full gloom of dusk, the time of day where change is inevitable. Thick, slow clouds clung to the mountain glory, tinting alpine meadows and wind-stunted trees in sepia.

And then he heard footsteps other than his own. They pattered in the silence, one, two, three, four. Their aural signature was one of purpose, of confidence. The footsteps were followed by panting. Donaldson stopped and listened. The hair on his neck and arms quivered when he realized the panting was coming from everywhere. He went to run, but thought better of it on the slick terrain. Better to stay calm than break his leg.

The panting grew louder, the footsteps numerous.

One by one they emerged from the mountain clouds, gallant as kings and queens. The first wolf was jet black with pale yellow eyes, and it watched him as it trotted. The others followed, sleek by design, their coats lightly powdered with flakes. Donaldson guessed the first wolf as the alpha. A big animal, much more muscular up close.

The alpha trotted towards him, tongue out, yellow eyes penetrating. Then it stopped. The grey pepper wolf behind the alpha did not stop. It passed the alpha and made a forty foot circle around Donaldson, its huge paws working the crevasses and snowy grass. The other wolves followed, joining in the circle. In a matter of seconds he was surrounded by seven wolves, ranging from black to all white to grey and variations of all three. His world had become hushing snow clouds, dampening flakes, and the thumping and breathing of these wild animals. His chest tightened and he fought the familiar fight-or-flight response. Time seemed to slow down, and he watched his frosty breath rise into the fading light, meeting with the breath of the wolves, and blown down mountain.

He knew then, in the breath and silence that there were things he’d never know—things he could only grasp at.

Then he heard more footsteps. But these were not from a wolf. A hollow thud indicated rubber to earth. Boots. It emerged from the mountain clouds and boulder field, wisps of fog curling off its powerful shoulders. Its tattered cloak rippled in the wind.

Donaldson turned to run, but the wolves held the circle.

At first the thing’s eyes triggered spiking adrenaline, the kind that made you want to rip away from your current position at all costs. The eyes were twice the size of human eyes, and colored mint-green. They were darker at the edges, gaining luminance towards the center. Below the eyes was a patch of vagueness, and then some kind of smooth carbon mask which the thing wore over its mouth. It carried a massive staff that almost equaled its height. The staff was silver and tapered to the ground. Intricate bas-reliefs covered most of the staff, up until the bulbous top which emitted heat distortions from a narrow opening. The thing’s eyes and mask blurred as the staff waved past its face. Snowflakes dissolved in the shimmering exhaust.

It moved closer and Donaldson figured it must have been at least seven feet with the build of an NFL defensive lineman. He went to step backwards and the wolves tightened their circle, their coats now heavy with snowflakes.

The thing moved closer. Donaldson didn’t need to check his hands. They’d taken on a life of their own, twitching and slapping against his thighs. He thought of his son and his wife, and then dismissed the images. They didn’t belong up here in this mess. This was his doing.

The thing stopped, and each wolf sat.

The snowflakes fell upon him. He heard the wolves licking their muzzles and the powerful breaths of the thing before him. Mountain lungs, just like the wolves.

Before Donaldson could speak, it pointed to the wolves with the staff.

In the passing clouds and fog he saw the eyes of the wolves—some yellow, some brown, some orange and green. A cloud took the figure before him, thick enough to block the radiating eyes for a moment.

For the first time ever on duty, Donaldson cried.

One of the wolves whimpered and another scratched its ear with its back leg.

The figure waved its staff and at once the wolves stood.

Donaldson’s knees buckled and he reached out for balance with a trembling hand.

The thing waved the intricate staff once more and the wolves circled Donaldson, then trotted off single file up mountain into the clouds. The jet black alpha was the last to leave, its pale yellow eyes burning into him before it disappeared.

The figure came closer to Donaldson—close enough to where he could smell its breath and feel its power. Back in the clouds a wolf howled. Soon the others joined in.

And then the thing spoke to him.


Donaldson sat with his son on their living room floor, next to a crisp fire. Stacey had gone to bed. She’d always been an early riser. He liked that it was just he and Cole for now, a little father and son quiet time.

Donaldson went to shut off the TV. It showed firefighters rescuing a family from a burning apartment complex.

Cole’s brown eyes flashed worry upon seeing the images, and he grasped Ruffy, his stuffed toy wolf. “Are there heroes dad?” he asked.

“Yes,” Donaldson said. “There are firefighters and police officers who do heroic things every day.”

“No, not those, daddy. I know about them. I mean heroes for things like Ruffy. There has to be a hero for everything, not just people.” Cole gripped Ruffy harder, this time with both hands.

Donaldson took a deep breath and stared into the crackling fireplace. The flames radiated like that high Idaho sun. He went to speak and hesitated. It had been a year since the incident—since he barely escaped the snowy mountains with his life. Yet he needed the words to come out—words he’d never told anyone. The internal filter he applied when speaking to his young son was jettisoned for his own needed release.

“I knew someone like that once,” he said, stoking the fire with the iron poker. “A very strange and unique thing.” Donaldson checked his hands as they twitched and then gripped his son’s shoulder. “You could say he was a hero for other things. But he wasn’t exactly good to people.” Donaldson poked at the fire, and it surged.

“Go on daddy,” Cole said.

“That’s it,” Donaldson said.

Cole’s eyes grew wide. “I know when you’re fibbing.”

Donaldson paused. Like father like son, he thought.

“If you met this person, you must have talked to him.”

“I didn’t talk to him,” Donaldson said. “He talked to me.”

“What did he say?” Cole asked, his fingers burying into Ruffy’s well-worn fur.

Donaldson spoke, a hitch of emotion in his voice. He was speaking to the room now as much as to his son, and the fire too, as if he had to confess and the bending flames were there to receive every utterance. “He said he was sorry for causing pain, but that he had come to love the Dollsy Pack, and he was doing what anyone else would do if others were trying to hurt things they loved. Like you or I trying to hurt someone else’s pet. We’d get hurt if we tried that, wouldn’t we?”

“Real fast,” Cole said.

Donaldson nodded. “Real fast. You’re a hundred percent right.”

“And that’s it?” Cole asked.

Donaldson held his boy. His eyes moistened as he blinked. “Before he walked away, he told me I had a good heart, and that he respected me. And that he came from a place that wasn’t as far away as we thought ...”

“Please finish, daddy.”

A fire cherry popped from a log and rose up the dark chimney.

“... and that they were us before we even existed.”

Cole sat and watched his father, his eyes darting, checking for facial reactions. “A hero told you that. You should be honored.”

“I was more scared than anything,” Donaldson said.

“Why? He was a hero.”

“Not for people,” Donaldson said. “But for Ruffy.” He pointed at his son’s stuffed wolf and Cole gripped his finger.

“For Ruffy,” Cole said.

Donaldson held his son and closed his eyes, and in his mind emerged the steep talus slopes, the fingers of green pines, and the rushing waters. He heard the wind as hard as he heard it on his first day up in the mountains, chasing ghosts with Enders. The Lost River Range looming above him, the snowfields cooling the air, the sun as fierce as a mountain lion. The end will be glory. He knows that now. Everything has a hero. Everything. END

Michael Hodges is a member of SFWA and the Codex Writing Group. He is represented by FinePrint Literary. His stories have appeared in “AE,” “Penumbra,” and elsewhere. His previous story for us was “Carillion’s Schemes” in the 12-OCT-2013 update.


star run


six questions