by James L. Steele
Five monitors on the desk took up three sides of the tiny room. Behind them dangled a mess of wires, power strips, and CPUs that generated so much heat Tech had disconnected this room from the heating system months ago.
Tech sat in the chair, turned to the right-hand desk. The brown rat wore no clothing. His clothes, phone, wallet, and car keys had been stashed in a drawer elsewhere in the building, and as long as he was on the job, he was not allowed to wear them. Nobody wore clothes in here because Alpha said this was a place to shed civilization. Tech’s fur had become grungy over the last few months. No matter how hard he washed, he couldn’t keep his fur as preened as it had been when he first started.
The views on the other monitors were too distant. This monitor showed the activity up close, and he watched the pack of wolves in the warehouse.
It was full of fake trees, fake grass, and fake shrubbery. The lighting mimicked moonlight, but had highlights from all angles to reduce the stark shadows. The only natural objects were the boulders sprinkled here and there. How the wolves got them in the warehouse without raising suspicion Tech did not know, and he had not asked.
He also never asked where the prey came from. Over the last few months he’d seen several dozen elk, rabbits, rodents, and even other carnivore species in the warehouse running for their lives. They never had clothes on, so he couldn’t tell where they came from, but their fur was never in good shape when they entered the forest. Tech guessed the wolves pulled people off the street who would not be missed. The sick. The weak. The homeless. The forgotten.
The elk on the screen limped across the plastic grass. A bite wound on the leg bled profusely, and part of a bone jutted out. Eight wolves emerged from the trees and washed over the rocks like water, converging on the wounded person. The cameras did not have audio, but the various microphones around the warehouse did, and they piped the sound directly into the control room. Tech heard every snarl, every howl.
They surrounded the elk, some of the wolves perched on the rocks, others on the ground cutting off his escape routes. Tech reached for the joystick and adjusted the zoom on the three nearest cameras to frame this moment better. The elk dropped to his knees, unable to run any farther, and out of places to go.
“Please!” he cried. “Don’t… Please let me go! Please let me go!”
With a snarl, the wolves descended on the elk. Tech’s first instinct was to look away, but instead he adjusted the tilt of a camera at ground level to make sure Alpha was well-framed making the kill.
The pack consumed the elk, and Tech switched to multiple cameras, taking in the feast from every angle, every zoom, anything to make it look more engaging.
The rat’s gut rose. He reached for the trashcan, keeled over, and vomited twice. As he sat doubled over in his chair, coughing, he turned to the unclothed wolf sitting by the door. Tech didn’t know his real name. As far as he was concerned, none of these wolves had names.
Beta sat on a chair by the entrance, padded hands behind his head, legs spread apart, which funneled Tech’s gaze straight to his crotch. He was smiling at the rat.
“Still haven’t grown a pair, have you?”
Tech’s ears folded back, and he snorted the last of the stomach acid from his nose. He slid the trashcan aside and turned back to the monitors. He adjusted the views from all fifteen cameras, checked the audio from all thirty microphones. One of the cameras was dark, and two microphones were out as well. He grumbled, wishing the wolves would stop damaging the equipment.
After twenty minutes, Alpha stood and left the kill. The others picked up the bones and followed him out of the warehouse and into the area that had once been the offices, now converted to a rec room. They were out of view of all the cameras.
Tech reached to the center desk, clicked the mouse a few times. The cameras still picked up the warehouse from every angle, but nothing recorded now. He turned on the second computer, sat back in his chair, and caught his breath.
“Was a buck this time,” said Beta. “Maybe I should tell Alpha we need to find a rat for the next one.”
Tech wanted to cringe, but showing weakness would not be a good idea. It was bad enough his scent probably reeked of fight or flight. This was the first time Beta had watched him since he had installed the first five cameras and showed them what he could do. They seemed to like the rat back then, but in recent weeks the entire pack had taken to nipping his ears every chance they got. Beta especially. Tech did not face the wolf when he spoke.
“Find one with light-colored fur. They look better in this light.”
“We try to make you happy.”
“Make yourself happy. Everyone knows you make the best kill vids. They don’t know it’s thanks to me.”
“If it was up to me, there’d be no videos. It would just be us and the hunt.”
“There’s no money in keeping it all to yourself.”
Beta growled, shifted in his chair. Tech had heard that growl before. It wasn’t aggression, but amusement.
The second computer had booted up and interfaced with the camera server. Tech began pulling the video feed from the most relevant cameras. He also pulled the audio from all the microphones. Camera windows and audio graphs began filling the monitor. He already had an idea for how he was going to splice all of it together, and Tech began dragging them to the adjacent desktops, organizing them by angle.
He began with one of the wide shots of the pack entering the fake forest. Then he spliced in the view from one of the ground cameras in the trees, a view of the elk as he woke up naked and helpless. He then inserted another ground camera view of the pack scenting their prey. A quick cut to a top-down view showed them forming up as a pack. As he worked the video, he also lined up the audio pickup from the microphones all over the warehouse. He had installed enough insulation to cut down on the echo, and now there was no way to tell this all took place in a warehouse in the middle of downtown.
Tech knew cameras and security systems, wiring and control switches, networking and equipment installation. He’d had to learn audio engineering and video editing on the job, and he wanted to be so proud of his ability to adapt and learn new things. He wanted to be proud of his work.
He had a rough cut of the hunt ready by the time he smelled Alpha at the door. Tech did not turn around, but kept working, steeling his body and hopefully his scent.
He felt a hand on the back of his chair and a muzzle over his shoulder. Tech made sure to have a camera feed showing the actual kill playing on the monitor in front of him.
“Perfect!” The wolf slapped the back of the chair a couple times. “Damn, that’s good! Tech, how did we do this without you?”
Tech was not his real name. Tech wasn’t sure if he had a real name anymore.
“You didn’t,” said the rat.
Alpha laughed. “How long for this one?”
“By the end of the day. I could finish it sooner, but your fourth wolf took down a camera in one of the trees.”
“The more equipment they damage, the more it costs. If you don’t want it cutting into profits, be more careful.”
“Money ain’t the point.”
“You want to go back to your day job?”
Alpha gave an amused growl. He turned his head and addressed Beta.
“I’ll watch the Tech. You join the others. Tell Fourth it’ll be his turn next hunt. Punishment for damaging a camera.”
A chair creaked, a large wolf stood, growled, and left the room. Alpha rose from behind Tech, dragged the chair from the door, and took a seat next to the rat.
“Beta doesn’t like you.”
Tech had become quite good at working while wolves talked to him. He had already synched up the audio from the best microphones and strung the video into a rough feed. He was examining other camera angles now, fine-tuning the presentation.
“He complains about the cameras and the audio and all this equipment everywhere and having to duplicate tapes on his spare time, but he also got to quit his job. He’s been like that since we were children. He wants paved streets but gripes about the construction. Don’t know how his wife deals with it.”
“He has a family?”
“So do I.”
“You shouldn’t tell me that.”
“You’ve been here long enough, Tech. Knowing a little more about us will help.”
The wolf sniffed in the direction of the trashcan. Tech winced and continued swapping out camera angles and making sure the audio was synchronized. Alpha watched him work for a few minutes.
“Ever think about trying it?” Alpha said.
Tech stopped. He hadn’t looked Alpha in the eye in a week, and now he turned to the wolf. Alpha’s grey fur and arms had been painted in false colors to disguise his identity on camera. He still had blood on his muzzle, chest, and arms.
“As prey?” Tech said, swallowing.
Alpha smiled. “As a predator.”
“You’ve been watching us for months. Aren’t you curious?”
Tech blinked again. “About committing murder?”
When Tech first met these wolves, they had nine-to-five jobs such as banker or manager of this or that, all friends of Alpha’s. Over these last few months, he had watched them become a unit that moved as one, acted as one, killed and ate as one. It had begun to carry over to their personal lives. It had been a fascinating transformation, one an expert in psychology should have been here to witness. Every time he thought about it, he trembled, and his gut rose. He beat the thought down and calmed his breathing.
Alpha smiled. “We’ll find you something small, put you in the forest. I’ll be at the cameras, and you can let yourself go. Let the urges take you. You know there’s a reason the videos we make sell so big. People want this. Everyone out there wants to do what we’re doing, but they can’t. Gotta be civilized and all.”
Tech had read about that in college. It took thousands of years for civilization to form. Technology replaced the need to hunt for food. Now it was all manufactured, predator made peace with prey, and everyone lived together.
But some highly-educated people said predators subconsciously needed to take life to be happy. They needed an outlet, and if one looked hard enough, one could find videos of predator species chasing down and killing real people. Tech had watched one a long time ago, at Alpha’s apartment, and he couldn’t believe anyone would be part of that, let alone pay money for it. He never imagined he would be holding the camera just a few weeks later.
“I’m a rat. Rats don’t kill.”
Alpha smiled. “Oh, yes they did. You’re just too used to thinking of yourself as a civilized person.”
“I don’t need to take life to feel good about myself.”
Alpha leaned close to him, muzzle to Tech’s ear. “I guarantee if I put you in there with another rat, you’d go nuts. Especially if neither of you ate for days.”
Tech shuddered. He hated it when Alpha talked like this because Alpha could make things like that happen. The large wolf leaned back in the chair again, smiling, showing the blood still on his teeth. Tech felt his gut rising.
“What would that be like?” said the wolf. “Editing your own kill vid. I’d pay money just to watch you do that!”
Tech stood, reached over the monitors, and flipped the switches to turn on all the overhead lights in the forest. He walked to the door.
“I need to look at the camera Four took out. You wanna come with me?”
Still smiling, Alpha pushed Tech’s chair aside and rolled to his place at the controls. “I’ll watch from here. Takes me back to my younger days, watching my first kill vid. Did I ever tell you about that, when I found my father’s stash under the bed?”
“Yeah. You weren’t even a teenager.”
Tech did not wait for Alpha to continue. He walked around the corner, down the stairs, and into the warehouse. The forest reeked of death. Tech often cleaned the place up and tried to make it smell like a forest, and he guessed he did a good job, as nobody ever complained.
He approached a plastic tree, and sure enough the camera was missing. He looked around the fake grass and found it seven feet away, smashed and broken, the wires ripped from it. Tech gritted his teeth and grumbled as he strolled to the maintenance closet on the other side of the forest. He opened the door, pulled out his tool bag, one of the spare cameras, and two microphones. Alpha had given him quite a bit of money to use for maintenance, and seeing it go to good use must have earned him trust with the pack. He slung the bag over his shoulder as he walked back to the tree.
He dropped the bag by the fake trunk and fished for the wire strippers. He cut the wires down to useable length, and stripped the tips. He attached them to the camera, pulled out the power drill, and began mounting it.
This branch was at eye level, one of many designed to capture the action from the ground. Nobody else had this. There were kill videos circulating all over the country on the black market—too hot even for the internet—but none of them looked like this. None of them had rigged lighting in the ceiling. None of them had cinematic angles. None of them had audio.
Tech had first met Alpha in a coffeehouse. They were strangers, but somehow the conversation moved to these illegal videos. That naturally led to discussing Tech’s profession in security systems. Then Alpha started asking Tech questions. Before he knew it, Tech was at Alpha’s place, watching one of these kill vids. Then another. Then another. Tech had been horrified, and he remembered glaring at Alpha, wondering what he had gotten into.
Then the wolf offered him a job. Alpha believed he could make a better video, but he needed somebody who knew cameras. Someone who would be okay working under these conditions.
And Tech said yes.
In fact, he was not okay with this. He despised the pack’s attitude, he loathed every hunt and every frame of footage he had to splice into their videos. Tech had watched the pack take down and eat dozens of people, and he was right there, behind the cameras, zooming in and zooming out, panning and focusing.
The camera was mounted. Tech replaced his tools, picked up the bag, and walked through the forest to the first broken microphone. He knew the place so well he could tell which were out just by the gaps in the soundscape fed to him in the control room. He stopped at a fake shrub and inspected it. The microphone had a few claw-induced gashes in it. Tech knelt by the stand holding the microphone, took out a screwdriver from the bag, and loosened it.
This whole enterprise had begun with five cameras. Tech knew the best places to put them, and the first kill was a trial run, using only a quarter of the warehouse. He had seen his first rabbit die that day. She had lasted a long time, too—the personal friends Alpha had gathered dragged her death out for several minutes. She pleaded, cried, begged, as everyone did, and Tech heard every word, every snapping bone, every bursting blood vessel. Then he had to edit all of that into a video for sale to people who enjoyed watching this kind of thing.
The video looked so good even Tech had been impressed. Tech hoped never to do that again, but it sold. Alpha gave Tech money for more equipment, plus a full share, as if he were one of the pack making the kills with them.
Alpha had proven to be an openly honest businessperson. He showed Tech the sales figures, breaking down the money they took in and what went where. Everyone knew how much everyone got for their part in it, and it was more money than Tech knew possible. There was a huge market for this stuff.
The old microphone was off, and Tech slipped on the new one. It required no calibration or aiming, so Tech packed up and meandered through the forest to the next microphone.
This one had been zip-tied to the branch of one of the fake trees. Tech paused and studied it. The thing looked as if one of the wolves had tried to take a bite out of it. Tech set the bag down, pulled a pair of clippers from it, and cut the zip-tie.
Since that first kill, Tech had spent his days mounting and calibrating new cameras. Running wire required a lot of crawling through dirty spaces, drilling holes, and feeding it through. He often spent the night in the warehouse to expand the coverage. Some of the pack even helped him. They had liked him back then. Now the wolves seemed to look down on the rat, Beta being the most aggressive about it.
They were up to fifteen cameras now. Between kills, Tech replaced damaged equipment, cleaned blood off lenses and microphones, ran wire, adjusted lights, and cleaned and rearranged the landscape. He had even insulated the walls, both to cut down on the echo, and to prevent noise from leaking outside. How nobody noticed this warehouse, Tech had no idea. He suspected Alpha had bribed some people who wanted in on this, but Tech had never asked.
The rat was lighting, sound, camera, set designer, director, and editor. He credited himself in the vids as “Tech,” and the name stuck. Alpha had told him he was famous in certain circles, and if he was interested, he’d introduce him to those circles. Tech had said no every time, insisting he didn’t want to go too far into this.
The new microphone was mounted, attached, and wired to the system. Tech dropped the broken mic into the bag with the other. He pulled out the old camera and navigated through the forest back to the control room.
Alpha was still in his chair, his eyes on the monitor showing one of the top-level cameras looking down on the part of the warehouse where Tech had been working. Tech wasn’t threatened by this. The wolves always made sure he didn’t leave with any pieces of video or other evidence. It was unlikely anyone would be convicted for these videos, as the wolves painted their fur with different patterns and colors before going on the hunt, and the law usually required scent identification, but just in case, they left nobody alone in this warehouse.
Tech handed the broken camera to Alpha. The wolf took it, looked it over.
“I’ll pull up the feed,” said the rat. “I think he smacked it on purpose.”
“I already did. Fourth did take out the camera. Third and Sixth got the microphones.”
“Need more of a punishment than just sitting out a hunt to watch me work.”
Alpha rocked back and forth a couple times, tenting his hands in front of his muzzle. “Did you notice them in the forest?”
Tech stiffened. “I didn’t see anyone.”
Alpha clicked the mouse a few times. Now the rat leaned over the wolf’s shoulder and watched. There he was, in high definition color, stripping wires and mounting the camera. The matrix of video feeds showed every angle possible all around the factory. The fourth wolf was crouching behind a tree, watching Tech. The third wolf was also in the forest, behind a rock, scenting the rat from a distance. And the fifth. And the sixth, seventh, and eighth.
The rat on the screen finished mounting and aiming the camera, then moved through the forest to the microphone. The pack had surrounded him, advancing from tree to tree, closer and closer. The naked, helpless rat knelt and replaced the microphone as a pack of wolves closed in. A few microphones had picked up tongues licking muzzles.
Bag in hand, the rat on camera walked to the second microphone. The wolves followed, so close they could reach out and touch Tech, and the rat never noticed. Two wolves, Seven and Five, were right behind him while he knelt and replaced the equipment, almost breathing down his neck, teeth bared. The poor rat remained oblivious.
Then the rat gathered his tools and walked to the control room. The wolves followed him, stalking him through the trees and behind the rocks but never making themselves known.
Alpha stopped the video, turned in the chair, and faced him directly. Tech backed away a step, shivering.
“Funny thing about being in a pack,” Alpha said. “You start to see everyone who isn’t in it as walking meat. I’ve been keeping them back for weeks, but I don’t think I can hold them anymore.”
Tech’s gut was empty, but it still rose to the back of his throat.
“I don’t wanna lose you, Tech. I like you. I like you a lot. But it’s too serious to think I can stop it from happening. Until you prove you’re one of us, you’re just meat. Even I feel it. So here’s an idea.”
Tech heard claws clicking on tile. He smelled the rest of the pack standing at the door to the control room, all eyes pointed straight at the back of his head. Alpha rose from the chair and walked into Tech’s personal space, holding eye contact. Tech looked up to meet his eyes.
“You’re not going home tonight. The pack will find another rat.” He smiled. “We’ll make sure it has light-colored fur. You won’t eat for a week. You won’t sleep. Neither will your prey. Then we’ll dump the two of you on opposite sides of the forest and put some meat in the middle. You know what rats used to do to each other when there wasn’t enough food?”
Tech dropped the bag. He really was shivering. Alpha held his shoulder, standing much too close for comfort.
“Relax, Tech. Once you taste the kill, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.”
Tech shivered harder under the wolf’s hand. “I don’t want to be like you.”
Alpha smiled. “I think you do. That’s why you’re still here.”
“I need a job! Nobody’s hiring and I need money!”
“I didn’t assign people to sit here and watch you work just to punish them for breaking microphones. I told them to break equipment so we could observe you. I’ve seen it myself. The way you watch us when we’re making kills… You need that trashcan because you’re afraid of yourself.”
Tech clenched his teeth. “This is hell!”
“I knew you enjoyed it the day I showed you that first video. Anyone else would have bolted out the door and never talked to me again, but you stayed. You watched more. You feel it. You watch those people, and you want to let yourself go, too. That’s why I gave you the job.”
“I am not… I do this shit because I have nowhere else to go! I hate it! I hate coming here and watching you!”
“I don’t believe that. You’ve wanted to ask me for months if you could try it, haven’t you? You stare at those cameras, and you wonder what it’s like. Just the thought… All you had to do was ask, and you can feel it, too.”
Tech couldn’t catch his breath as he convulsed. Alpha rested a hand on Tech’s other shoulder.
“Tell me, Tech. What’s on your mind? Why are you still here? Do you want to?”
Tech shook under the wolf’s grip. He couldn’t tell if Alpha was speaking, or if Tech was talking to himself. Realizing this held him in place. Hearing someone else speak his innermost thoughts was more terrifying than being surrounded by wolves covered in the blood of their latest kill. Still shaking, he stood straight and looked straight into Alpha’s eyes. All he could manage was a whisper.
Alpha smiled. “I knew you were one of us.” Alpha turned him around and faced the rest of the pack. “It’s time to show them you’re not prey. We’ll clean up and start making tapes while you’re getting ready. I’ll run the cameras this time. Do you have any idea what people will pay to see two rats tearing each other apart? I’ve never found a kill vid of that!”
Tech had forgotten how big these wolves were, and all of them were covered in elk blood. They were still hunting him.
“You’ve never been in the rec room have you?” said Alpha. “Come with us. It’s time to join the pack.”
Alpha led him by the middle of his back into the midst of the wolves. Tech walked with them down the stairs and through the forest. He looked from side to side. He was in the middle of a pack of eight, large wolves who had tasted the kill and enjoyed it.
As Tech walked, his nerves calmed. He expected to feel anxiety, knowing what lay ahead, but instead he felt relief that he wasn’t meat.
The pack moved as one, thought as one, killed as one, and now Tech was among them. That could be him, too. His mind explored the possibility, and he expected to dry heave, but it did not happen this time. Instead, he pondered that soon he would experience how it felt to act without consequences. By the time he stepped into the rec room with the pack, he had stopped shivering. He now smiled in anticipation.
* * *
About the Author
James L. Steele is a writer in Ohio. He is often asked to sum up his life’s story in a single paragraph. James is very depressed by how easy this is. He is the author of Huvek, available through FurPlanet, and the Archeons series, through KTM Publishing.