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art by Shane M. Gavin

The Pretty Woman Without Mercy

This is the second time Steve Mathes's fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, and the second time where dogs have figured prominently in the story. He also has a story pending publication in Neo-opsis.

Knight would love to say that he went into the woods to be like Thoreau: to learn self-reliance, economy, solitude, all those noble things that noble people learn. No, he ran for it. He fled. His old mentor Pablo used to say that the thing that you run from the hardest is always the thing that circles around to get you. Knight ran into the woods to escape persecution because of his old age.
He ran for his life, and now he stumbled along a dark country road. He had many miles to go before he would be in the true wilderness, but it was already pretty bad here. Weeds sprouted through the cracks in the shattered pavement, and the screams of predators carried through the failing light. Grizzlies roamed these woods nowadays, not just the timid black bears of his youth. There were big cats, cougars, not only the spooky but small bobcats. There were coy-wolves bigger than timberwolves, huge packs of them. Worst, of course, were the feral humans like him.
People were allowed to live here, as long as they brought no technology, and built no permanent shelter. They were permitted to be animals.
When it got dark enough, his resolve to find a campsite wavered. There were houses still standing around here, still occupied. This was after the emergency conservation laws, but Knight had not reached the areas where forced demolition had erased civilization, where all human structures were, by law, razed.
Mosquitoes feasted on him. The stars came out, then got snuffed by thickening clouds. He began to trip over things, and he could follow the road only because he held out his hands, and crashed into trees when he got to the edge.
And then he saw a light in the distance.
"Maybe I should have left a trail of crumbs," he muttered.
He felt his face flush as his resolve to sleep outdoors failed. Going into the country had sounded so good, back when he was sitting in his Boston apartment. It had felt so hopeful in a desperate way. Now he felt alone, and loneliness made him reckless, out here beyond surveillance and data service. He would ask for shelter. The house was small, white, and classic New England.
She answered as soon as he knocked. In the bright light over her door she looked to be a fresh teenager, except for the worldly, adult eyes. Medicine could do miracles now, but there was always a certain look that the treatments couldn't touch. He could tell that she was old, maybe older than he was.
"I'm getting eaten alive, and I'm exhausted," he said. "Could I stay until dawn?"
She blocked the door. She pointed an old-style revolver at his face. It was rusted, but all the little holes were filled with bullets.
"I can give you shelter, but I'd want a biopsy in return," she said.
No birds sang under the lowering sky, but across the road he heard something enormous breaking sticks in the undergrowth. Probably just a moose. Maybe. He flinched when an insect probed his neck. The sky had already started to spit rain. A biopsy? She wanted a biopsy?
"What kind of biopsy?" he asked.
"Just a small needle in your thigh. Not your neck."
He slapped his neck. She grinned, and it lit up her face. For an instant she made his breath hitch with her glowing features, her fresh smell, her shiny eyes. But then she locked those ancient eyes on him, while her tender youthful fingers flexed around the raised gun.
"Either the biopsy, or you go away," she said.
"Right," he said. "Biopsy it is."
She stepped aside in invitation. He noticed that she did not put down the revolver. However, he now noticed the two silent dogs, as well. They were huge, even for attack dogs. One of them tried to get out from under the table, and its back made the table lift. It got free, shook itself, and eyed him suspiciously.
"I'm still technically employed," he said. "I can pay, if you want money."
"Just the biopsy."
They were at the side door, which in classic New England style opened straight into her kitchen. She pointed to the general direction of a chair with her gun, and he found himself wondering whether this was an invitation or a command. On one level it didn't matter, because he had no choice except to sit. However, on another level, knowing the difference might mean knowing whether he was making a fatally bad decision.
He pulled his pack through the door. He sat. The dog that had come from under the table approached, and planted its nose in his lap, kept him seated by pure force of intimidation. The woman used the time to rummage around in her cabinets, which were filled with medical supplies. She put the gun on her counter, dug a syringe out of its sterile wrap, and came over.
"Stand up and pull down your pants," she said.
He stood. He hesitated, glanced at the gun, and pulled down his pants. He kept his boxers on.
"Now the boxers, and bend over the table."
"I thought you said my thigh," he said, taking another glance at the gun.
"My word is good, but pull down your boxers--all the way down to your ankles. Then put both elbows on the table. That way if you try anything, Jack here will have time to tear out your throat."
He did as he was told. Jack stood by, and did a full-contact sniff of his sphincter. While he flinched because of this, the needle stabbed into his leg. He gasped. His rebounding buttock whacked Jack's wet nose. Jack did not bite. The needle finally came back out.
"All done!" she said. "You can get dressed now."
"Not your average bed and breakfast," he muttered.
He had passed some kind of test with Jack. As he pulled up his pants, the huge dog circled around to his front, its tail wagging, its look expectant. He was not good with animals. Still, he understood that this was a time when politics required that he stroke its head. The other, still larger dog, who was curled in the corner, looked up in curiosity. As soon as he finished fastening his belt, he did the required petting of Jack. The other dog went back to sleep. Jack stuck by his side.
"So tell me about yourself," the woman said.
She had finished squirting the biopsy into various vials, and was busy sticking labels onto them. Knight noticed that her printer had identified him correctly. So much for being beyond the reach of data out here.
"From the looks of things," he said, "your system already did that. That's me on your display, all right."
She had two refrigerators. She opened the left one, and put all but one of the vials into a rack. There were hundreds of samples in there, maybe thousands. She then went to the right refrigerator. This one was filled with food. There was beer, too. She took out a beer, opened it, and put the bottle by his side. He did not sit, but he did pick up the beer. It tasted as good as it looked. He certainly needed a drink.
"People notice my age from my eyes," he said. "I get jostled on the street. I've been mugged twice, and the police have told me they can't do anything about it. One sergeant even told me I was a waste of good oxygen. I'll reach mandatory retirement this year, so now people will notice that I'm not even productive. I used to teach. My last regular paycheck comes in August. My life is effectively over."
"Or so it would seem," she laughed.
He distrusted the sound of that, but the look she gave him was one of commiseration.
Meanwhile, she had inserted the last vial into a machine. He had no way of knowing what the machine was for, but it was attached by wires to her data center.
"You have a data line?" he said. "Way out here?"
"It's a pirated connection," she said. "Wireless, not a line. They don't bother me, because they know I'll get demolished soon anyway. But the data from your biopsy is going in another direction."
"Another direction?" he said.
She smiled her shiny, pretty smile again. He understood this was his consolation prize, instead of an answer. It made him impatient. Here she was giving him shelter. He knew he needed to be patient, but she behaved too mysteriously. Patience had never been his virtue.
"Do you have a name?" he asked. "Am I overstepping if I ask? Is that too much information for me to have?"
She just smiled at him again. It failed to make him patient, but he did enjoy that smile.
"I don't need anything definitive," he said. "Hell. What's the problem? Just something I can call out to distinguish you from Jack, or the nameless dire wolf in the corner. Or even the mosquitoes. Just something to get your attention."
The nameless dog looked up at him. It seemed to react to his loudness in an unfriendly way.
"Call me Maeve."
"Thank you!" he said.
She smirked, in a condescending way. So he finally knew one dog and one person. Good enough, given that none of this would have anything to do with him in the morning. The last thing he could afford was to push his luck, now that he had shelter from the cougars and bears. Maybe it was safer, not knowing anything about her.
"Maeve? Can I ask your advice?" he said.
"If you think it'll do any good."
"Should I go out there into the woods? One bit of technology, anything beyond a bow and arrow, anything beyond a temporary hut, and the drones track you down, right? I'll die no matter what. Should I keep going?"
"Or what?" she asked. "Or go back to overpopulation? Go back to smog, and riots over scraps of hydroponic food? Go back to being hated because you're rich, cured of old age? Another one who will not die and get out of the way? If you go out with Mother Nature, you won't be hated. You'll only be forgotten."
She grinned again. She did her trick of brightening her eyes into pure youth, as she looked at him with something a little more than sympathy. They were two accomplished old people in early adolescent bodies, stuck on the edge of the wilderness, but he now knew that she could fake being young. She had those bright eyes. She could walk the city streets in safety.
She put a hand on his, and petted him like a dog. She got two beers out of the refrigerator, and sat down next to him. Jack went under the table and lay down heavy on his feet. Only the vague, throbbing memory of the needle in his thigh kept this from being the best moment of his life. He could sense trouble thickening around him, but he almost didn't care.
"What is there?" he asked. "What's the point of anything?"
"It's all here and now," she answered. "That's enough."
If she had kissed him, or tried any other funny stuff, perhaps he would have come to his senses. Instead, she fixed him a sandwich. Two beers and a stomach full of food melted into his exhaustion. When his eyes got heavy enough, she led him to a couch in the back shed.
"You can find your way out in the morning," she said.
He collapsed onto the couch. He wondered how long he would sleep. He felt a little too groggy, unnaturally so, and when he tried to get back up, he could not muster the will.
"Just one thing," he said. "Everything else seemed so respectable. Why did you take the biopsy?"
His words came out slurred. He expected nothing like an answer. All he really wanted was another consolation smile. Perhaps he was in love?
As if sensing this, she did not smile. This time she gave him an answer.
"We're building a genetic ark," she said.
"Things are worse than we feared. Tomorrow, when you walk farther out, take a closer look at the leaves, the animals, the grass. Everything has begun to wither. Already there are no birds. Out here, you can sense the collapse. We built an ark to wait it out."
"An ark?" he repeated.
"Material for clones. If you live, you might meet your twin. But of course, you won't."
"You drugged me."
She pulled the revolver out of her belt, flourished it.
"For your own safety," she said. "We can't have this causing panic!"
She grinned, finally. She laughed at her own joke. Her eyes lit up the shed, looking for all the world like those of a pretty child--and with that he let himself sleep.
Whatever he was drugged with, it left a hangover. When he woke up, he felt empty, as though the syringe had sucked out his soul along with the biopsy cells. He felt vacant. It took him an hour or two to negotiate standing up. He tried the door into the main house. His surprise when it opened did nothing to make him perk up. He went into the kitchen. The bigger dog still lay curled in the corner, but there was something about it. He poked it with his boot. It was stiff, dead. He should have felt alarm, but he felt sadness.
The equipment was gone. After he had proven to himself that the refrigerators were both empty, he shouldered his pack and went outside. The pack was heavier than he remembered, or maybe he was too sapped from the drug. There was sunshine working its way through the haze. It would be hot today, very hot.
Of all his feelings, only his paranoia remained strong. As he walked, he felt like he was being followed. He trudged down the road, and more than once he looked behind. He cared too little to do it quickly, but he looked. Sometimes he thought he saw a flash of black fur slipping into the bushes. Mostly, he just saw a cracked and ruined and empty road.
He felt empty, but he was wiser.
He started looking for a safe place to camp as soon as the sun got low. There was no mistake. He had passed the empty foundations of razed houses for quite some time now. This was the far woods, the place where technology would get him killed. And he still felt something following.
He came to a large lake, and settled under a rocky overhang. He felt like one of the plastic cavemen in a museum diorama. All he needed was a spear. He opened the pack. His things were all there, but there was also some food. There was a single bottle of beer. There was a small bag of dog food.
"Dog food? No. I came here to die, not eat dog food."
He understood now. He was ready to die, but out here away from the muggers, it was death on his terms. Or at least mostly.
It had indeed become very hot. He was covered with grime and sweat, and wanted to take a swim. However, he was afraid. He decided he would wait until he got more familiar with his surroundings before he let down his guard enough for a swim. Funny how being ready to die and being afraid were completely separate.
He looked more carefully, and discovered that Maeve had been right. Not everything showed the sickness, but there were signs. Some of the trees had withered. It was something more than yellow leaves. There was a thick mat of dead fish washing against the rocks. Things smelled sweetly rotten, like perfumed excrement.
And then he heard the rustling.
Now that his paranoia had a basis in fact, it dissolved. He really did not care what happened. He found a stick, more out of gesture than from a genuine will to survive. He planned to die waving a stick. Too bad, he had not made the spear. The stick was partially rotted, not much of a weapon, but he hefted it, held it ready. He stepped out from under the overhang, and went toward the sound, toward his fate.
It was the dog. It was Jack.
It stood alert, poised, posed like a wolf, until he was in plain sight, and then it collapsed onto its stomach, whimpering. He felt the weight of the club. He made his decision, and tossed the stick to the side. It hit the lake with a splash. The dog sprang to its feet and approached. He went to his knees, ready for the fangs to tear into him, but all he got was tongue.
The dog's clumsy approach knocked him back, but the tongue kept working, its wet, rough surface scraping away at his neck and face. Knight could feed it later. Knight could die later, later when there was no love left. For now, the animal seemed to like the salt of his grime and sweat. It kept licking, and after a while it also tasted his tears.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 15th, 2012

Author Comments

A retelling of Keat's poem "La Belle Damme sans Merci" with the belle damme as Mother Nature was too tempting for me to resist. I was determined to avoid using a dog, but the ending needed a creature that lives halfway between civilization and the wild. I enjoyed writing this so much that I became nervous that I was blind to its faults. I held onto it for months before sending it out.

- Steven Mathes
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