Issue 180 – September 2021

5870 words, short story

Yesterday's Wolf


They found the torn lamb in the gold spring grass, beside the gravel road. The flies had found it first. But the flies were still lazy and slow. Later in the season, when they found a feast like this, you would be able to hear them buzzing from a distance.

Elmira watched her brother Taalay and her father Nurlan from several meters off. She did not want to see the lamb. She had carried it to the summer pasture in a bag dangling from the side of her own horse. She did not feel like crying—this was not the first lamb she had seen destroyed by wolves—but she did not need to look at it, either. She looked instead at the small white coins of her family’s two yurts, higher up in the valley. Then at the herd, three hundred meters away, a pool of tan balls shifting from one grazing spot to another.

She could hear the bell on the neck of the goat they called Nursultan clanking. He was old, long a leader of sheep, slowly going blind in one eye.

“She won’t be the last one we find this season,” Elmira’s father said.

Arystan, the fat stupid shepherd dog, stood off on the other side of the road, wagging his tail slowly back and forth. His barking had, maybe, driven the wolves off so they did not finish their meal—but it hadn’t stopped them from killing the lamb.

“What good are you?” Taalay yelled at the dog. “Why even feed you?” He pretended to pick up a rock. Arystan danced off a few meters, then came back and stared at them hopefully, knowing eventually his incompetence would be forgiven.

Elmira’s father climbed into the battered old jeep and drove off to the village, the wooden slats of the trailer clacking behind.

“Too bad you can’t reprogram that idiot dog.” Taalay said to Elmira. He spat in the grass and walked off toward his horse.

“You’re drunk.”

“I’m not.”

“I can smell you. Do you think I can’t smell you?”

“I only drank enough to be polite. I even poured some out on the ground. Do you think I want to drive these roads drunk?”

Elmira lay underneath her sheepskin, listening to her father and mother outside the yurt. They always fought like this—in angry whispers just as audible as their regular voices.

“Come and see it. Come over here,” her father said.

“What did you pay for that thing?”

“Nothing. They found it on their summer pasture. I used the winch to drag it out of a stream bed. Amir said I could take it away with me.”

“He was drunk.”

“Yes. He was drunk.”

“He’ll want it back in the morning.”

“What for? He wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“What to do with it? Sell it for scrap metal. What else would you do with it?”

“Elmira will know. Is she up?”

“She’s asleep. Leave her alone.”

“I’m up!” Elmira shouted from inside the yurt. She was already out from under the sheepskin, pulling on her heavy quilted coat.

Her mother, Bermet, was standing near the trailer looking down at the thing. Elmira ran over.

What it looked like most was the skeleton of an enormous dog. Its body was still coated with dried mud, but its head must have been sticking out in the last rains, because that was almost completely clean. Its protruding visual arrays stared off at the mountains. Elmira examined it closely. Its limbs were all intact.

“It’s just junk,” her mother said. She looked at her daughter almost hopefully. “It must be wrecked, otherwise they wouldn’t have just left it there.”

“A friend of mine found one of their armored vehicles last summer, just lying in a ditch,” Elmira’s father said. “It started right up, and he drove it home.”

“A friend of yours.” Bermet stared at her husband.

“A friend of a friend.”

“Well, at least you made it to town before getting into this nonsense. Elmira, get the rest of this unloaded while there’s still a little light left. I don’t know how we’re even going to get that thing off of there.”

Elmira’s father looked at her. “Is it broken? You’re the expert.”

He was looking at her the way he always did when they were talking robotics, computers, anything technical. As if he were the child, and she were the parent.

Elmira’s father was confident in everything he did—but to him, tech was an incomprehensible, secret world. Elmira’s prowess with tech was magical, a power he bragged about constantly to his friends, and indulged in any way the family could afford.

This was just the latest of the treasures he had brought home for her. Over the years he had gathered old terminals with their screens cracked, wet and moldy programming guides from before the war, any dongle or wire or circuit board he came across. And in winter, in town, he was the one that loaded her up with credits so she could spend hours in the basement web café, practicing coding and designing new programs, viewing all the latest techvlogs while the neighborhood boys blew muscle-bound, armored avatars of one another to pieces in VR.

“She can figure that thing out later,” her mother snapped. “Right now I need her help with real chores.”

Elmira sat on Alatoo, watching the herd. There was a thin rain coming down, one of those mountain rains that kept turning to sleet and then back to rain, and she tightened the strings on the waxed hood of her poncho.

Alatoo shifted from one hoof to another, and Elmira patted her with a reddened hand.

“I know you don’t like him. But he’s going to help us.”

Arystan growled. He had been walking in circles around the horse, staying as far away from the herd and their new guardian as he could.

The sheep hadn’t liked their new guardian either, at first. But then Taalay put Arystan’s old collar on him, and that seemed to be enough. Now they treated it as if it were any other shepherd dog.

The goat Nursultan remained suspicious. He would occasionally stop and stare at the gaunt, black thing with one eye and then the other, as if trying to fit it in to at least one half of his goat brain.

Taalay had doubted her, and so had her mother, but her father had watched the process as if viewing a film, in which his daughter was the star. He’d circled around her for days with a small smile on his face, stopping in his work constantly to watch hers, waving her mother and brother off when they tried to distract her or enlist her for some other chore.

Recharging the battery was the trick: she needed to charge it just enough to bring the processor online so she could dump its old routines, and then load in the new ones. If she charged it too much—if it started moving before she got the old war routines out, who knew what would happen? So she took the whole thing inside one of the yurts, turning it into her workshop. She isolated its processor, disconnected it from the chassis, and worked on the new code while the diesel generator ran for three days, returning power to its core.

Once fully charged, she knew, it would run on its own for years, picking up power from the sun via the solar nanocrystals in its hardened, black coating, and from a dozen other systems. It even regained power from the impact of its feet on the earth.

These things had been designed to run independently for years, patrolling areas where regular soldiers couldn’t go. And of course that was the problem—after the war, no one had been able to come back to the summer pastures for a decade. Those who tried found themselves dragged from their yurts and torn to pieces. But eventually the kara itter—the black dogs—stopped moving, one by one. The summer pastures were safe again—except for the occasional mine or bomb. The streambeds were the worst: unexploded cluster bomblets and mines washed into them in the storms and lay among the stones and torn branches, waiting indifferently to do what they had been designed to do.

She watched the sleek kara it pacing back and forth beside the herd. She had named it Batyr—Warrior.

Last night she had woken up, along with the rest of her family, to the sound of wolves. They came in close to the yurt camp, to where the sheep were penned. Her father reached for the old shotgun in the dark, but Elmira stopped him.

“No, just wait. Batyr will take care of it.”

And he had. There was much howling and snarling for a few minutes, then nothing at all. In the morning, they found a jumble of tracks in the mud, and a few droplets of blood. Batyr was pacing the perimeter of the sheepfold, turning his sharp, pseudo-canine head side to side. Elmira thought he looked proud.

“The sheep are all here,” Bermet said.

“But he didn’t kill any wolves,” Taalay added.

“I didn’t program him to kill wolves,” Elmira said. “Wolves are good. They balance the mountains. Without them even the rivers would not run as steady. Don’t you read anything?”

“Wolves are expensive,” Taalay said.

“Maybe so,” their father said, “But these are their mountains. And we are their guests.”

“I would like to give him a piece of meat,” Bermet said. “He has been such a good boy. Aren’t you a good boy, Batyr?”

At his name, Batyr stopped and walked over to Bermet and sat in front of her. She took a step backward.

“It’s okay,” Elmira said, “I programmed him to do that. Now say, ‘shake.’”

“Shake,” Bermet said, after a moment of hesitation.

Batyr put a paw in the air, but she would not take it.

“Maybe I’m just not ready yet,” she said, and walked away. “I better get breakfast started.”

But her father came over and took Batyr’s paw in his hand. “Arystan never learned that one.”

At the sound of his name Arystan whined and turned a circle in the mud.

Elmira clapped, and Batyr went back to his patrol.

That had been in the morning. Now, in the sleet-rain of a cold day, Elmira sat on Alatoo, watching Batyr pace his line along the sheep herd.

She heard the sound of the car behind her, the smooth electric hum, its immaculate honeycomb tires on the road. She knew who it was, of course. But she did not turn.

“They counted three hundred sheep,” her father said.

They were all cross-legged around the cloth. Dinner was finished, and they were drinking green tea. The electric lantern light made Elmira’s father and mother look old.

“But there aren’t three hundred,” Bermet said. “There are two hundred and ninety two.”

“They round up,” Taalay said. “That’s new this year. They round up to the next ten.”

“So they can take another sheep from us. On top of the ten percent they take.”

“Yes,” Nurlan said. “They’ll come for them in the fall. Thirty. And any lost from the flock between now and then is our own loss, of course.”

“It should be twenty-nine.” Elmira protested. “And counted at the end of the season. That’s how it was last year.”

“Yes,” her father replied. “But the year before that, it was only one out of every twenty.”

“And next year, they will count the sheepskin we sleep under as sheep. They will count our jackets, and our bowls,” Taalay said, looking off into the dark as if he could still see their electric six-wheeler, somewhere out there.

“They are the government,” their father said. “They take what they need.”

“They take what they want,” Bermet said. “And they are not a government. Governments give you something for what they take. They give us nothing. They are a gang. They are the ones with guns and power, that is all.”

“They keep the others away, at least.”

“Others who are exactly like themselves.”

“No,” Nurlan said.

Old. The lantern makes him look old. And Elmira was reminded that he had fought in the war. He never spoke about it—he was not like some of the others, who wore old parts of a uniform or a cap, so you knew they were veterans. He had put all that away, as if it never had been.

But it had been. Somehow the light of the lantern, which made everyone look a little aged, a little weaker, brought it out.

“No,” Nurlan repeated. “There are others that are much, much worse. They will take everything, and not only the sheep.”

“After a while,” Bermet said, “Whoever is in power becomes just like the others. They are not like wolves: they do not eat only what they need. It takes time for the hunger in them to grow, but it always grows. Next year they will come for more than just sheep. Or perhaps even this year.”

“Are you all right?”

Elmira didn’t know any other question to ask. She sat on top of the kurgan with her friend Jyrgal. Two years older than her, Jyrgal had been kidnapped the year before while walking home from her high school graduation ceremony. She had been forced into a car by a second cousin of hers and a boy who attended her school a year ahead of her.

That boy’s name was Eldar, and he was now her husband. Elmira watched him down below, standing in a circle of men talking with her father.

Elmira had come along with her father to talk about buying a yurt from this family, who lived a few summer pastures over from her. She had been surprised to see Jyrgal here.

Talking to her now, she felt like she was speaking with the ghost of someone she had once known. Jyrgal was not who she had been a year ago. She was pale, her face more oval now than the happy moon it had been when they went to school together. The bony tip of her chin was visible against the flesh. She kept her head angled away when speaking.

“They are a family like any other family,” Jyrgal said.

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“The mother-in-law is a mother-in-law. The father-in-law is a father-in-law. Eldar is a husband. The cousins are all as stupid and boring as cousins are. They are exactly like my own family.”

“Then—it isn’t so bad?”

Now Jyrgal turned to face her. It was the first time she had made eye contact. Elmira had forgotten the color of Jyrgal’s eyes. They were amber with a ring of brown at the center. How could she have forgotten?

“They held me for three days, trying to force me to say yes. But I wouldn’t. They threatened to spread rumors about me. That they had . . . used me. But I wouldn’t give in. I knew my father and brother were looking for me. I knew they would find me. But Eldar’s family had taken me off to the mountains, and it would take time for them to come. All I had to do was hold out. Wait for them. I had hope.”

“But they didn’t come.”

“They did come. On the sixth day. With guns, and two cousins of mine. But by then, Eldar had forced himself on me. I was afraid to go back to my family. I had already agreed to a wedding.”

“You said they were just like any family. But how could a family do such a thing?”

“Ask my father,” Jyrgal said. “My mother was kidnapped when she was younger than me. She didn’t even finish school. Ask my brother—I hear he and two of his friends dragged a girl off last week. A freshman at the polytechnical university. I hear she has already agreed to a wedding. Most of us do.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“No,” Jyrgal said. “But you will be, if you don’t get out of here.”

Driving home in the bouncing, creaking old jeep, Elmira was silent, staring out the window at the mountains, the new green of spring grass, the hoops of yurts going up. Here and there, a man on horseback, a lonely kurgan in the middle of a plain (and deep in that barrow, a skeleton that had once been a man on horseback).

There were scars from the war: a bomb-hole that had become a pond, a glint of metal in the distance that resolved itself into the smashed carapace of some murderous machine.

“They have heard about Batyr,” her father said. “They are already jealous. They said the wolves are worse this year. They have even seen them in the daytime. The wolves have killed a few shepherd dogs already, and the season has barely begun. They asked if you could do it again—if they found another kara it. I said it would cost something, but you could. Maybe you’ll start a small business.”

He smiled at her hopefully. But she was not smiling back at him.

“Your friend,” he said. “I know.”

“Was mother . . . did you kidnap her?”

Her father was quiet for a long time. Elmira sat in the clanking, jostling car, staring out at the unwinding landscape as it repeated itself with variation.

Finally Nurlan spoke. “Your mother was kidnapped, but not by me. We were classmates, and a week before graduation, they took her. She fought and fought. She had no father to come and save her, no brothers. So I got a few of my friends together, and we went and found her. I could not let it happen.”

“You were in love with her.”

“No, not yet. I was in love with justice, maybe. With the law. This system—it is wrong. It is wrong now, it was wrong then. It was wrong from the very start. When we finally caught up with them, they told us she had already agreed. That they had already . . . ” he paused. “We took her back anyway. We shot one of them, in the leg. He almost died. In the car, on the way back, she never spoke. But later, she wrote me a letter. A real letter. And we started walking together. You should . . . you should know something.”


“No man can ruin a woman. They claim they can, by doing things to her against her will. But none of that is true. Because that isn’t what a woman is for.”

“What is a woman for?”

“A woman is for herself.”

Elmira found herself thinking of Jyrgal’s eyes. She had been wondering if they were what had gotten her kidnapped. The most beautiful eyes in school. But no—it wasn’t her eyes. It was the idea that had gotten her kidnapped. The idea that the kidnapping could be done. That a woman was a thing, to be stolen without consequence.

“What would you do if I was taken?”

“I would tear the skin off the world, looking for you. But I will not have to.”

“Why not?”

“Because you can take care of yourself.”

“There’s barely anything to do, anymore,” Taalay said over his bowl of soup. “Batyr does it all for us. I was thinking”—he looked at his father, but with a glance, as well, at Elmira. As if I have some authority too. As if father would not decide things without me. Can that be true? “Maybe we can take on more sheep. Get a loan, this winter. I think one of the banks might give us a loan, if they saw what we have now.”

“The banks,” Bermet said, “Are men just like the ones you call ‘the government’—men whose job is to come and take what you have. We won’t double what we have now—we’ll lose everything.”

“You never want to change anything,” Taalay said. But not to his mother—to his father. He would never dare contradict his mother. “We just go around in circles: winter in the town, summer in the pasture. And nothing to show for it.”

Nurlan set his bowl down. “What do you think all this is?”

“All of what?”

Nurlan gestured in a circle “All of this. What we have. This is what there is to show for it. And it’s all I want.”

Outside, Elmira washed her bowl. The summer pasture lay under the heat, alive with the chittering pulse of insect sound.

Indeed, there was little to do. They had not lost a sheep since Batyr had come to them, although the wolves returned weekly.

Last week, she had seen something she had never seen before. She had been on Alatoo, watching as Batyr coursed along near the herd, when the horse started under her, tossing its head and moving in a frightened half-circle.

The wolf was walking casually through the grass, not more than fifty meters from her. It had a dead marmot in its jaws. The moment Elmira saw it the wolf paused, looking at her. One of its forepaws was raised off the ground. It cocked its head and held her gaze.

Then Batyr slammed into it. The wolf tumbled through the grass. When it scrambled to its feet it ran, with Batyr trailing it. At five hundred meters, Batyr stopped, just as he had been programmed to, and trotted back to the flock, passing Elmira as if she did not exist.

Elmira dismounted and found where the marmot lay in the grass. It was golden brown, fat, and sleek, barely marred by the wolf in any visible way, except for blood around its snout and some smears of drool on its fur.

“This is the sacrifice,” Elmira said to Alatoo. “Instead of one of our sheep, this one died. I wish there were something we could do for it.”

But there was already a Cinereous vulture circling overhead, waiting. Elmira watched the arc of its shadow on the grass. Burying the marmot was the kind of thing people who lived in the city did—taking a meal away from the animals and insects in order to make themselves feel better.

Still thinking of sheep, wolf, marmot, vulture, Elmira finished washing her bowl. She was seeing circles everywhere, after what Taalay had said. The circle of her bowl, the spirals of the vulture in the air that day, the coin of the sun. Even the loop home at the end of the season. They did not go back the way they came. Instead, they drove the sheep over the pass and down though the valley to the south, letting them fatten up a little more on the return trip. The winding road was like a loop of string dropped on the ground, twisting here and there but, finally, resolving into a circle. Loops, circles. The hoop at the top of the yurt . . .

Taalay broke the spell, walking past her. “We’re trapped here. And it just goes on and on and on. Boredom. Forever.”

“I don’t feel trapped,” Elmira said.

Taalay looked at her. For a moment she saw anger in his face. Then something else—something softer. She would not have known what to call it. “No,” he said. “I know you don’t. You have another world to go to, when this one is not enough. But I am not as smart as you are. I don’t have anything but this.”

Their father came out of the tent. His terminal was at his ear. “Yes,” he said to someone on the other end. “Yes. We will come. Send your ping.”

“What is it?” Taalay asked.

“We have to go and help someone.” He ran back into the yurt, came out again, this time with a shotgun. “Taalay—stay here with your mother. I need you to come with me, Elmira. Bring your command terminal. And Batyr.”

Elmira called to Batyr and he loped over, looking in the evening light like a pile of burned branches that had come alive, imitating the shape of a dog. At her command, he clambered into the back seat of the jeep.

“It was that young man—Eldar,” her father said as the jeep shook and rumbled over the rutted road. “He said . . . they dug one up. They found it at a place where the stream turns against the mountain stones. It was buried there, in the gravel. They dug it out. They thought they would bring it to you. To program. They took it back to camp and cleaned it off. Then they laid it out to dry in the sun.”

“And it woke up,” Elmira finished. She was already hooking the command terminal to Batyr, concentrating on the alterations in the code. And the parameters of the behavior, the time. Failsafes. You couldn’t get any of it wrong. Not if you wanted to live.

To her father, Batyr was a miracle—magic, worked through the tools and materials he brought her. Like a father, she thought, in a fairy tale, gathering herbs and mushrooms for his witchy daughter. For Taalay, Batyr was a reminder of another world—other possibilities, other ways they could live. A tool that could be used to take them somewhere else.

But Elmira remembered her mother, unable to take Batyr’s paw. Her mother sensed it in that moment. She knew what Elmira knew: Batyr was a monster. A machine designed for killing. Elmira had changed that, programmed it away. She had covered it up with little flourishes—making Batyr behave like a pet, stick out its deadly, tearing paw. Come when called.

But she had not forgotten it. She had seen the code, the original instructions. She had stored it on her terminals to pick apart, to analyze the way she analyzed everything. Sitting up nights, in the glow of her terminal, she had seen their programming in all its violence and power. She had thought of the people who wrote it, who put these things out there in the world. Monsters behind the monsters.

“Almost finished,” she said to herself. But she saw her father looking at her, and realized she had said it out loud.

“We must be careful,” her father said.

She finalized, and Batyr sat up, staring out the window of the jeep, head scanning from side to side as they pulled up near the yurt camp.

“Yes,” Elmira said. “I know.”

One of the yurts was completely collapsed, just a pool of dirty felt and torn plastic sheeting that had been used for additional protection against rain. The other one was tilted, half collapsed, a hole torn in its side. Elmira saw the torn corpse near the hole.

The sheep were clustered together on the top of the kurgan, milling in a mass. They all wanted to be in the center of that mass, protected. They knew what happened to sheep on the edges, when wolves were around. But this wolf wasn’t hunting for them.

“Not much light left,” Nurlan said.

Elmira opened the door, and Batyr jumped down to the ground. He wound a figure eight in the grass, then raised his head and bolted, past the kurgan and off across the valley. Elmira could hear the grass hiss against his flanks.

“Will we lose him?” Nurlan was loading shells into the shotgun. Solid slugs. Those might knock it down, but they wouldn’t stop it.

“Maybe,” Elmira said. “But I hope not.”

“You have grown fond of him.”

“No, Papa. That’s not it. I am not fond of Batyr. He is just a machine. But he is our machine. And if he does not stop that thing, it will kill everyone in the summer pastures by tomorrow night. Eldar—if he is not dead already—and Jyrgal, if she is still alive, and everyone left in their family. And then you, and me, and Taalay, and Mama, and the next family, and the next one, and the next one. Eventually, someone might stop it. But not until all of us are dead.”

They had come to the corpse, now. It was Eldar’s father.

The father-in-law is a father-in-law.

Inside the half-collapsed yurt was Eldar’s mother.

The mother-in-law is a mother-in-law.

Those were the only two bodies here. So they had gotten away—Jyrgal, Eldar, and whoever else was with them. For now.

It began to rain. They sat in the jeep, listening to the tap and thunk of fat raindrops on the roof as the clouds swept overhead. The clouds were moving quickly. The rain would come, hard, carrying bits of hail in it, then stop again, just as suddenly. Pools of light and cloud-shadow drifted across the kurgan, and the sheep made their slow turns atop the ancient grave-mound. It felt safe in the car, with her father and his shotgun. It felt safe, but Elmira knew: the metal they were in would only delay their deaths a moment.

They both saw it at the same time. It came slowly through the grass, limping, determined, in a direct line toward the car. It looked like something that had crawled out of a bonfire.

Nurlan squeezed his daughter’s hand. Elmira could almost hear the thought.

It should have worked. And we had to come. But now I’ve killed you.

Elmira rolled the window down. After a moment she said, “Do you hear it?”

“Hear what?”

“Arystan’s collar. You can hear the metal tag on it, clinking. That’s Batyr.”

Eldar’s body was in the grass a few hundred meters beyond the kurgan. He had fought back furiously—bravely. The many wounds on his arms told that story.

The mother-in-law is a mother-in-law. The father-in-law is a father-in-law. Eldar is a husband.

Nurlan traced the path leading onward through the grass.

Batyr went ahead of them, pointing the way, limping.

Just like Arystan had, when he’d gotten a thistle in his foot. It was so easy to think they were alive. It was so easy to think Batyr was good. So easy to make mistakes. To forget.

The thing was in a wash, among stones. Here, the thundering water that flooded the wash at times turned against harder rock, and a cluster of boulders unearthed by the flow formed a narrow cave.

The thing lay near the narrow mouth of that cave, on its side. Batyr had managed to get behind it, and tear away the connective cabling in its neck.

They had not been programmed to know that shared weakness, but Elmira had found it, and given Batyr the knowledge. The advantage.

The boulder-formed cave was where they found Jyrgal. She was curled up at the back of the space, covered in scrapes and cuts from shoving her way into a crack almost too narrow for her. They dug it out and pulled her free.

She was alive.

They rode back to their yurt camp with Jyrgal in the front seat. Elmira rode in back with Batyr. Jyrgal could not stop turning to look at Batyr, with terror in her eyes. But she said nothing.

Nurlan spoke to break the silence. “I told your mother what I said to you—about the way we met.”

“You did?” Elmira was surprised. “She must have been furious with you.”

“She was. She wanted you to know something. I keep thinking she is going to tell you, but I don’t believe she will. I think she wants me to do it.”

“What is it?”

“She wanted you to know—that I didn’t buy her by saving her. That wasn’t the way it was. She didn’t marry me because I saved her. She married me because I was the kind of person who would do such a thing. There is a difference. Do you understand the difference?”

“I do.”

“Good. I am not sure that I do, but good.”

“I understand it too,” Jyrgal said. They were the only words she spoke on the way.

As they drove up to the yurt camp, they saw the black, electric six-wheeler, parked in front of the yurts as if it owned them. Two young men leaned against it, straightening up as the battered old jeep approached. Another man was standing nearer the yurt, talking to Taalay and Bermet.

Nurlan parked the old jeep and got out. Elmira followed, leaving her door slightly open behind her.

Nurlan shook the man’s hand, then backed off a few steps, joining a semicircle of family.

Taalay spoke first.

“He came to . . . ”

“I came to ask,” the man said. “Like a modern man. I don’t want to do it the old way. My son, there—it’s time for him to marry. And it would be a good match . . . ”

“No,” Nurlan said. “She doesn’t know him. She is going to the university, and then on to a different life.”

“I came to ask,” the man said. “So as not to do it the old way. Out of respect for your family.”

“I thought you only took sheep in the fall,” Elmira said, “After all the work had been done fattening them. It’s still August.”

The man turned to face her, smiled, and said over his shoulder to his son, “This one has character. I can see why you would want her.”

Elmira had never seen the son before. When had he seen her? How long had he been planning this?

Elmira whistled.

Batyr dropped down from the jeep, loose and bony, and came at a slow trot to her side. His limp made him seem more menacing—old and mean and of the mountains, like the lead wolf of a pack with many seasons behind it.

“You should come back in the fall,” Elmira said. “For your twenty-nine sheep.”

“Thirty,” the man corrected.

“It’s twenty-nine. And not one more.”

The man was looking at Batyr. Elmira had seen that look before: it was the same look her father had, once, when he saw a viper near his boot, but did not want to startle his two children, close behind him. It was a look of terror, hidden behind a mask of control.

The man nodded. “We’ll come back in the fall.”

They drove off in that strange, silent vehicle, its honeycomb tires purring against the crushed gravel. A vehicle so far beyond the means of anyone at the summer pasture that it was like a spaceship from another world. But inside it, the people were the same old people.

The father-in-law is a father-in-law.

Bermet ran to the car and began to help Jyrgal out of it.

Nurlan looked at Elmira sadly. “I think it is time for you to leave this place. Before they return.”

“No,” Elmira replied. “This is my home. But we should go and retrieve the other kara it.

“That monster?”

“It can be repaired, and reprogrammed. Two of them is better than one. There are many wolves in these mountains—more with every season.”

Author profile

Ray Nayler has lived and worked in Russia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans for nearly two decades. He is a Foreign Service Officer, and previously worked in international educational development, as well as serving in the Peace Corps in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Ray began publishing speculative fiction in 2015 in the pages of Asimov’s with the short story “Mutability.” Since then, his critically acclaimed stories have seen print in Clarkesworld, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and Nightmare, as well as in several “Best of the Year” anthologies. His SF translations from Russian have appeared in Clarkesworld and Samovar. His story “Winter Timeshare” from the January/February 2017 issue of Asimov’s was collected in The Very Best of the Best: 35 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction. Ray’s debut novel, The Mountain in the Sea, will be released this fall by MCD x FSG.

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