Breathing deeply of the cool midnight air, Jenny Mallett walked quickly along her favorite path through G. Ross Lord Park. She could feel the first tricklings of sweat along her hairline and inside her mismatched yard-sale jogging outfit, and silently promised herself a little frozen yogurt and a warm shower when she completed her trek.
Sheba, Jenny's black-and-white border collie, trotted along at her side, tongue lolling in a contented doggy grin, tail held high.
It was a beautiful night for a walk. The late October air was as refreshing as a cold beer on a sultry summer afternoon, spiced with the scent of newly-fallen leaves and damp earth. Jenny felt the day’s accumulated stress dissolving in the cleansing rush of blood through her veins as she powered her way up a hill.
The park was huge, stretching across this part of Toronto like an amoeba with pseudopods reaching from Steeles Avenue to the north to Finch Avenue to the south, and from Dufferin almost to Bathurst Street. It would have been almost two kilometers square if not for the encroachment of subdivisions, cemeteries, and schoolyards; in places, second-growth forest and undergrowth formed thickets large enough and dense enough to make getting lost a real possibility.
The paved pathways made it ideal for jogging, cycling and power-walking, however. You could be surrounded by nature — wildflowers (weeds to some) and unusual birds and insects were common sights just beyond the paved areas — without getting your overpriced shoes dirty. At night, it was usually quiet, with few witnesses to critique unfashionable clothing and less-than-ideal figures — and there were other benefits. Jenny glanced upwards as she huffed along, counting strides under her breath. The sky directly overhead was as black as a sorceror’s robes except for the diamond-dust sparkling of the stars. But even here, in the middle of the park, the glare of mercury-vapor streetlights ate away at the darkness and drowned the starlight in a featureless haze near the horizon in every direction.
"Not like being out in the country, is it, Sheba?" Jenny paused and bent to give her canine companion an affectionate pat on the rump. "Out on Uncle Jack’s farm, we could see ten times this many stars, right down to the treetops."
Sheba chuffed in agreement and smothered Jenny’s hand with warm, wet kisses, partly, Jenny suspected, because she still had traces of The Colonel’s chicken on her fingers. Now her hand would smell like essence of Alpo instead.
Jenny laughed and crouched to scratch the border collie under the chin until it groaned in doggie ecstasy and buried its muzzle in her armpit. When she felt Sheba’s tongue starting up again, she stood, still laughing, and said, "No soggy armpits tonight, girl! It’s a little too cool for that."
She set off again, across the second footbridge and around the curve leading up the hill to the Recreation Centre. Sheba, as usual, found something utterly fascinating to sniff at just off the paved path, and Jenny had to slap her thigh and call, "Sheba! Heel!" in her best Barbara Woodhouse voice before her furry friend came trotting to catch up with her.
The next stretch was a little more challenging – more than one hundred meters at an incline that forced Jenny to bend forward and bring her knees halfway to her chest to maintain her pace. Sheba trotted ahead, looking back at her as if to taunt her for slowing down. Jenny growled in mock anger, and grumbled, "Laugh it, up, girl, it’s easy for you with your four-paw drive. Just remember who runs the can opener back home!"
Sheba barked in reply and resumed her zigzagging progress up the hill, nose close to the ground to sample the hundreds of scent trails on this well-traveled path.
Suddenly, Sheba froze. Her tail drooped to half-mast, and her ears sprang to attention. Head cocked to one side, she padded toward the thickly-forested side of the path.
Jenny groaned and doubled her pace. "Sheba, no! Whatever it is you smell, don’t you dare take off on me!"
The dog, incurably curious and always fearless, suddenly whimpered and began to back away from the deeply-shadowed woods. Jenny caught her by the collar, clipping on the leash before the dog could break and run across the soccer fields on the other side of the path.
"What is it, girl? What’s in the woods?"
There had been sightings of foxes and the occasional coyote in the park, Jenny knew; she’d seen one or two herself, usually at night. But neither of those could have frightened Sheba this way. It had to be something big – or something strange, strange enough that a dog who had passing familiarity with most of the creatures to be found in second-growth forests, farms, and parks was more afraid than inquisitive.
Sheba continued to pull away from the woods, her whimpering now punctuated by high-pitched yips of distress. Jenny tightened her grip on the leash, wrapping some of the slack around her hand. Her own curiosity had been piqued, now; what kind of animal could have made it into a suburban park (even one with hectares of thick, tangled forest) that was big enough or just scary enough to make Sheba act like a frightened pup?
Sheba’s distress was growing by the second. She was actively fighting the leash, trying to break free, and Jenny had never heard any dog make sounds like the ones now pouring from Sheba’s throat.
Finally, Jenny decided that anything that could terrify Sheba was worth avoiding.
"All right, girl, let’s go!"
She broke into a stumbling run down the hill, struggling to stay on her feet while gravity and a panicked dog conspired to throw her onto her face. Sheba continued to wail, barking and whimpering as she ran.
Near the bottom of the hill, Jenny tripped. She was close enough to the edge of the path that she managed to land on soggy ground instead of asphalt, but the impact drove the breath from her lungs and jerked Sheba’s leash from her hand.
Sheba continued to run for a few seconds, then scrambled back and tried to lever Jenny up from the ground with her nose.
"I’m all right, girl," Jenny gasped. "Just let me catch my breath. I think we’re safe enough here, anyway."
Suddenly, Sheba jumped back, yelping. Jenny turned, terror rising in her chest like a flash flood, sweeping away all thought and drowning her voice so that she couldn’t even scream.
It was not an animal. It was not a man. In the moon-silvered darkness, all Jenny knew was that it was large, and strange, and that she wanted to run from it. She was grateful for the darkness, because she thought that knowing more, seeing more, would be enough to steal her voice forever.
The thing moved toward her, gliding as silently across pavement and turf as a wisp of fog. Despite this, Jenny could sense that it was as massive as it was huge; she had a momentary vision of the dancing hippos from Fantasia, absurdly graceful for their size and weight. There was sharp, metallic scent in the air – probably the first thing that Sheba had sensed – like the tang of hot wiring, just short of bursting into flame.
Jenny managed to roll onto her back and scuttled backwards away from the dark shape. Fortunately, it did not seem to be very fast; if she could regain her feet, she might be able to outrun it on this more level stretch of the path. Sheba could certainly outpace it; she could be a furry bolt of lightning when it suited her.
She’s staying because of me, Jenny realized. She wants to run, but she won’t leave me.
Rolling to her feet, Jenny turned to run, shouting, "Run home, Sheba! Go on!" But as she took her first running step, pain exploded in her back. She fell, screaming.
Once, she had been stung by a wasp, right between the shoulder blades. She thought then that she had been stabbed with a large knife (no eyelash-sized insect sting could hurt so much), that she was going to die. Once, she had touched a frayed electrical cord and had felt every muscle in her body spasm for the agonizing instant before the plug had been jerked out of the wall socket.
This feeling was reminiscent of both, but a thousand times worse. The smell of scorched cloth and blistering flesh mixed with the jangling of her nerves and made her retch even as she tried desperately to breathe.
Dimly, she was aware that the moonlight had been eclipsed by the great dark bulk of the creature/machine/demon/thing as it drew closer. Then she heard a low growl, and an explosion of barking.
"Sheba, no," she said weakly. "Run, girl. Run home."
But Sheba had been Jenny's since Jenny had been a gangly ten-year-old and Sheba had been small enough to fit into a baseball cap. She had grown from a puppy into a slightly-arthritic senior citizen with more gray around her muzzle and chest every day without losing the manic energy that had made her a lovable nuisance from the beginning, and she loved Jenny with all of her furry heart.
Jenny moaned in sorrow as she realized what was about to happen.
Sheba would not leave her. Sheba would die for her.
Jenny closed her eyes. She heard the skittering of Sheba’s paws on the grass as the dog launched herself at their attacker, felt the wind of her passing and the brush of her soft fur as she leaped over Jenny's crumpled form. Then there was a flash, so bright that it hurt even through Jenny’s tightly-closed eyelids, and Sheba yelped once, and then fell silent.
"Oh, Sheba, oh no," Jenny moaned. "Oh, puppy, I’m so sorry!"
She opened her eyes, glanced quickly around until she saw Sheba’s crumpled body, impossibly far way. The dog had been thrown more than ten meters further down the path, landing off the pavement and only a few meters from the river. And the thing was moving toward her.
Jenny tried to stand, fell to her knees as pain from her wounded back ran through her like an injection of hot acid. Clutching at a signpost, she tried again, and this time, managed to pull herself up until she could hug the post for support. The thing was closer to Sheba now, only seconds from – whatever it intended to do. She could not let it happen, could not let the thing hurt Sheba any more.
There was something attached to the signpost. It was a long, thin aluminum pole – intended to reach people who were drowning in the river, although Jenny had never seen the water deep enough to drown a newborn gerbil. She pulled the pole from its brackets, and stumbled toward Sheba and her murderer.
"Over here, you bastard! You dog-killing piece of crap! Over here!"
The thing ignored her. It seemed to tilt in mid-air, rotating around some invisible axle to bring its upper body closer to Sheba’s motionless form.
Jenny screamed, half in fear, half in rage, and thrust the pole into the side of the thing like a flimsy spear. The pole buckled slightly, but seemed to penetrate a few centimeters. From the buzzing sensation in her hands, Jenny guessed that the thing used electricity somehow – as a weapon, certainly, from the way she had been injured, and from the way Sheba had been thrown back – but maybe as its life’s blood.
The thing pivoted back to the vertical, twisting the pole in Jenny’s hands. Desperately, she shifted her grip and held on. She felt pressure on the pole, toward her, then twisting away from her, but she was able to hold her ground.
"Got you," she laughed. "You can float along, but you don’t have enough traction to move if something resists."
The buzzing feeling in her hands increased, as if the thing was trying to force her to release her grip on the pole. Jenny felt the muscles in her arms jumping, felt her hands growing numb, but she held on.
"Is that all you can do? I’ve had carpal tunnel syndrome worse than that!"
The problem was that she was tiring. The wound in her back, the bruises from two hard falls in a matter of minutes, and worst of all, the dog-shaped hole in her heart were all draining her strength. If she let go, the thing would probably attack her again, and then do – whatever – to both Sheba’s and her own body. But she could not hold on for much longer.
The buzzing in her hands subsided slightly.
"Batteries running down?" she taunted. "Guess I’m not the only one who’s getting tired of this."
She gasped. Batteries. If the thing really did live on electricity, use it to move, to attack and defend, it had to have a power source. And – unless the damn thing had some science-fiction fusion reactor in its guts – that power source probably had limits.
They were only a few meters from the water. Even better, that water was far from pure – there had to be enough industrial run-off, road salt, and other crud in it that it would conduct electricity very nicely.
Grunting with effort, Jenny pushed the thing toward the riverbank. It resisted, but as she had guessed, it depended on floating (or at least frictionless contact with the ground) to move without much thrust. She was able to drive it in the direction she wanted with about the same effort as pushing a heavily-loaded shopping cart with a bad wheel. Of course, she probably wouldn’t push a heavily-loaded shopping cart when she had a gaping wound in her back, but times were tough everywhere.
Her sense of triumph faded when the thing glided down the steep riverbank and came to a stop, hovering a few centimeters above the water. If it didn’t touch the water, it wouldn’t short out and drain or burn out its batteries.
The buzzing in her hands increased again, this time to the point where Jenny’s whole body was shaking.
"You don’t like being so close to the water, do you? So I must be on the right track," Jenny muttered. It was hard to think when every muscle and nerve was auditioning for a Michael Flatley dance extravaganza, but there had to be a way to complete the connection, preferably without jumping into the icy water and electrocuting herself along with tall-dark-and-nasty.
"I just wish this damn pole wasn’t such a good conductor," she snarled. Then she laughed, a harsh, barking laugh through clenched teeth. With a sudden effort, she bent the pole a few feet from her end so that the tip almost grazed the riverbank.
She walked forward, pushing the thing upstream, until the tip of the pole was over the water. She could feel the current flowing through her now, from the pole through her body and into the river.
"Good night, sucker," Jenny said, and dropped the pole. As the metal shaft touched the water, she saw a brilliant flash, and then darkness.
Jenny awoke to the proverbial world of hurt. Her back was throbbing, her hands felt scorched, her feet felt frozen, and she desperately needed to find a bathroom. A faceful of wet doggy kisses seemed like the perfect icing for that particular cake.
"Oh, Sheba, knock it off! I’m not in a kissing mood right now!"
She opened her eyes, remembering. "Sheba? It is you!"
Sheba yelped and pulled away when Jenny tried to give her a hug. Jenny saw a blackened patch on the dog’s flank with raw, blistered flesh showing through the remaining wisps of fur. She was limping, too, Jenny noticed.
Jenny ruffled Sheba’s fur, careful to stay away from the wounded area. "We’re quite the pair, aren’t we girl? Burned, bruised, and abused."
She glanced down at the water, where the thing lay slumped, one more piece of illegally-dumped junk among the discarded shopping carts, old tire, and floating trash.
"But they should see the other guy."
Even as she watched, the black, hulking shape collapsed inward and began to crumble. Within minutes, the debris had been carried away and dispersed by the trickling water of the river.
Jenny grunted. "I don’t know if I should be glad the bad guys are cleaning up after themselves, or upset that there’s no proof of what happened to us."
Sheba rolled her eyes and yawned.
"You got it, girl. A little first aid, and a lot of sleep for the both of us."
And wincing, limping, and muttering in English and doggish, they made their way home.
Robert Moriyama is a systems analyst who somehow wound up in Airport Planning at Toronto’s main airport. He has been writing sporadically for most of his life (with readership limited to family and friends) but has placed stories in various webzines over the past several years, including Dementia (now Demensions), Titan (now defunct), and Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearance was Grave Matters (April, 2002), the second Al Majius and Githros story.
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