Chapter One: Infection
It was bound to spread to humans eventually. Sooner or later, as the disease spread, it would mutate. And if it tasted enough human blood to morph into an illness that could infect them, we would be doomed. But in the meantime, it was restricted.
Eric Stoltz was an average Alaskan teenage boy. Considered a bit of a nerd, he spent most of his time outdoors, in the natural wonders of the Last Great American Frontier. His usual companion, rather than friends from school, was one of his fathers dogs. These were not sled-dogs, although they did enjoy hauling a sleigh and passenger. Rather, his father bred champion Alaskan Malamutes. Eric planned on taking over one day, and was learning the benefits of lineage, and when he could, travelled with his father to shows.
The dogs enjoyed hiking as much as he did, even though they were often the same trails. They would find the tracks of moose, wolves, foxes, and deer. Rarely, there was a large polar bear trail. Those were the days that Eric cut the hike short; his father would not tolerate putting himself or a dog in danger. And with the wild parts of Alaska slowly being impeded upon for logging, the oil industry, or hunting, a polar bear with receding hunting territory and limited prey would not hesitate to use a teenager or a dog for a snack. With a few dogs, they could fend off an attack. But one dog wouldnt be able to handle a fully-grown bear. Those gigantic paws fringed with long, sharp claws were powerful enough to crush your ribs with a single blow.
He had learned which dogs were safe to take out and which were not. Less impulsive than the Siberian Husky, Malamutes were a little easier to deal with. But there were always a few whose hunting instincts proved too strong to be commanded with words. So he usually used one of four dogs as his trail companion. Last Frontiers Ogre Shrek, as they called him was one. As a pup, he was large and intimidating. But he didnt have much promise in the ring with his mass, so he was neutered and was waiting for the day that someone wanted an adult dog to adopt. With not much else going for him, he took to agility and obedience easily and therefore was a perfect friend to hike with. Shreks sister, Fiona, was also large. Females werent supposed to be too big, and so she wasnt allowed to breed, either. With a similar fate as her brothers but a little ditzy, she became a good companion dog. She was quick to forget her bearings, however, and so she wasnt usually picked by Eric, although he sometimes felt bad enough for her to take her out. Frankie Ch. Last Frontiers Mickey Blue Eyes was a retired show dog. He had had moderate success and was occasionally allowed to breed. His calm, goofy nature made him impossible to part with, and so unlike the others, he slept inside the house rather than outside in the kennels. Unlike Shrek, he didnt have much training. He only needed a few necessary commands, and that made him a great albeit boring hiker. Lastly, there was Blanca. Eric normally wasnt allowed to take out the breeding female because she was all white; a white dog with hunting instincts was easily lost in the Alaskan Wilderness. But during the summer months, when there was less snow, she was more than happy to get away from her pups, and Eric was happy to have the little, obedient female by his side.
It was a Friday, and with the whole weekend to waste away, Eric was anxious to get back to the trail he was following yesterday. He had found moose tracks close to the house, which was unusual, considering the gigantic, lumbering beasts would have both heard and smelled the dogs. This one was either lost, or stupid. His father had told him of the commotion the dogs made while Eric was in school, and he brought Frankie the calmest with him to investigate. There was no sign that the moose had run away, which was even stranger. Almost as if it had rather confront the dogs than go back the way it came. But they slowly led away, going further towards the nearest town. Frankie had shown little interest; he had sniffed a little at the tracks, but soon looked up to Eric with his almond-shaped azure eyes as if to say, now what?
Needing a partner with some more moxy, he brought Fiona out. She probably had saw and smelled the moose yesterday, and would be willing to follow a trail. With his gear in place, Eric attached a leader to the black-and-white dog, letting her have lots of room but keeping her near so she wouldnt be able to run off. They left directly from her pen and picked up the trail immediately. She was excited. Pulling him through drifts of snow, Fiona caught the trail and followed in a wide arc, ignoring the edge of the forest as the moose had. They travelled much faster than Eric had with the stoic Frankie, and the boy found himself laughing despite not wanting to frighten the wildlife.
Slow down, Fiona! he called in a higher voice than he should have at his age.
She looked back at him, her tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth in an amused grin and her eyes crinkled with a doggie laughter that only a dog-lover could truly understand. This made him laugh harder, and she continued to pull him in the direction of the scent.
Knowing full well that the moose would be long gone, he allowed her enthusiastic one-man sledding, and looked around. They were out in the open, although the forest was nearby. Moose, although cautious creatures, didnt fear much. But that didnt mean they were stupid. Usually, they stuck to lightly forested areas. This one seemed to be wandering aimlessly. Perhaps it was sick, or dying, Eric mused. Immediately, the boy put up a mental shield. A wounded animal usually meant a dangerous animal. He pulled back on Fionas lead a few times to let her know she was getting out of control. She looked back at him and slowed some, but whatever she smelled kept her from remembering the reprimand she had received.
Now watching the edge of the forest wearily, Eric was on guard. He was intent on the thin line of trees, so he didnt pay much attention when Fiona began to whine as she pulled harder. The idea that the moose could, in fact, be nearby if sick or injured began to register with him, and when he finally turned his attention to the dog twenty feet in front of him, he saw more than the random black-and-white mix of a Malamute trudging through the snow. There was red mixed in.
It hadnt turned brown yet, meaning the blood was relatively fresh. This also brought new facts to light. No stranger to the wilds of the state or the animals that inhabited it, Eric knew that the wound was fresh. And it obviously hadnt died here, so if this moose was still alive, it was going to die fighting. A full two-and-a-half feet taller than him, the moose could easily kill him with a swing of its antlers. Of course, a female would be less dangerous, but that was a fifty-fifty chance. And either way, a kick with one of its hooves male or female could be fatal to himself or the dog. A dog who was still pulling him towards imminent danger.
Fiona, he whispered as he crouched, tugging on the extended leash.
The dog paused, sensing his fear. She looked back at him, then back at the trail. She seemed to bristle instantly, her hackles raised high on her shoulders and extending down her back to her tail, which looked as bushy as a squirrels now. She growled low in her throat and cautiously stepped forward. Eric was stunned momentarily by her aggressiveness. He couldnt remember ever having heard her growl. She was female, and therefore inherently prone to being more protective than a male dog, but Fiona had never had a litter. Breeding females tended to be more aggressive when protecting something. Still, he allowed her to pull him slowly forward. It seemed that she now understood the danger, so he was willing to go a little further. Besides, they would see the injured moose long before it saw them, right?
It was eerily quiet, the snow shushing any footsteps he would have heard. Fiona, although a large dog, was made for this type of climate, and so she was completely silent as she stalked on. She had been panting in excitement before, but now that she was on guard, she was as quiet as a hunting lioness. Even her head was now bowed as if under pressure and her nose stretched out. To Eric, she looked just like a wolf stalking prey. It immediately clicked in his head that this might be the exact situation when they saw her.
A cow, lucky for them. But it was injured, and it was still standing, although the head was low, showing the obvious pain she was in. She didnt raise her head to look at them, and her ears didnt swivel in their direction. The wind was still for once, allowing the boy and dog to be completely unnoticed as they both stood and stared in bewilderment. What had attacked the moose but not killed it? Surely a pack of wolves would have brought her down. And they would have heard if wolves were hunting in the area. Their coordination howls often sent townspeople scrambling for either shelter or a gun. No, this was different. It couldnt have been a bear. A polar or even a grizzly would have done much more damage even if it had lost the fight. From the small amount of blood and the image of the cow standing before them, it seemed like something smaller had been the attacker. It may have been a young bear, but there were no bear tracks in the area.
And then, while looking for young bear tracks, he saw them. Next to the moose tracks which appeared to be running there were a set of tiny, dog-like footprints. Only one set, and they were running as well. But that was silly. It was insane. There must be some sort of coincidence or mistake. He bent to take a closer look. Fiona, noticing his distraction, turned and slowly made her way back to her master. He was crouched low over the two sets of prints. There was no way
and yet there was no mistaking it.
Impossible, he said softly as he gazed in an awed respect.
Suddenly, he saw movement from the corner of his eye. Eric looked up to find that the moose had heard him and was now looking their way. His eyes suddenly wide with fear, he bolted upright and started to run in the opposite direction back home.
Fiona, run! he yelled as he sped away as fast as he could. Away from the injured moose. Away from the tracks that told him something was wrong. Away from the set of footprints that were the size of a cats, but shaped like a dogs. Away from an Arctic Fox that had obviously been stupid or sick enough to attack a full grown moose that may or may not be following them. Neither of them looked back to find out.