Art Pact 30

In the falling light of the moon, the landscape suddenly lit up with a silver sheen. Like the ghost of countryside, there were no colours, just shades of grey that shimmered and flickered as fickle wisps of cloud leapt into the lunar rays. The sky was a dark blue, like the depths of the sea, speckled with twinkling plankton. Trees were seen but not heard, masses that rustled as they steered the winds, so that the feel of the night weather was unpredictable on their muzzles. The smaller ones clustered under the legs of their elders, and they pack progressed across their territory in fits and starts, pulling each other this way and that with their short barks.

The two alphas at the head of the group stayed silent, showing up only as moving blackness limned by white lines. They were the most cautious of all, moving in such a way that only one of them was exposed at any time. First the larger one, her thick coat almost hiding her shape, darting from tree-trunk to tree-trunk, then the smaller one, creeping delicately on her long legs, eyes flashing, alert and tense. Every few minutes they stopped as if to confer, crouched down with their heads together. The rest crouched down in mimicry at this point, so that the whole herd of them could have been nothing more than rocks or tufts of foliage in the black undergrowth of the midnight forest. Even the smaller ones, tucked away between their parents or elder brothers, stayed as quiet as statues, just the occasional little whimper betraying their position to the watchers.

From their position on the rock, watching through their monoculars, the two hunters were only able to make out the pack because they had followed them while they moved. Every time their subjects stopped, one of the hunters carefully screwed the stage on his tripod into a fixed position so that they would not accidentally lose the pack. They were tense - they had been following the group for over a week local, and with every night that went by they felt themselves closer and closer to losing their quarry. By the day they baked themselves on hot mats that they lay beneath them while they were still, but at night the light given off by the edges of the heaters would be clearly visible to the sensitive eyes of the pack. All they could do was to wrap themselves in as much wool and fur as they could gather and sit in their hideout, feeling the strength slowly leeching out of their arms and legs as they got colder and colder. They'd discussed what would happen if one of them fell to hypothermia, and the conversation had not gone well. The elder of the two was protected - should he fail now, there would be other opportunities. But the younger was too new to have any of his contacts. If she came back without some token of success she might not be offered the chance to leave the town again. Worse, possibly, if the council decided that the food problem had become too severe.

Down in the forest the alphas, as if synchronised by some unknown signal, both began to move forward. They stalked through the undergrowth, and when they had reached a sufficient distance the rest of the pack began to follow them, slowly straightening up and shepherding the young ones into the centre of the group. They were obviously alert to something, because a handful of the larger specimens started to spread out around the mass of the pack, hanging back to protect the stragglers and forming a line either side. In the lead, the alphas moved like birds, stepping forward in alternating smooth rushes then stopping to look around. The hunters unlocked the tripods of their monoculars and began to track them to the north, one following the moving pack while the other tried to make sense of the terrain ahead to pick a spot where they might move unseen to continue their observation on the following morning. He saw a bluff, part of the same cliff-sided discontinuity in the landscape that they were perched on now, and flicked his tail in irritation. It was a perfect spot to watch from, but it would be cold. He did not think he could bear another day at this temperature.

Down in the forest the larger alpha adjusted her coat, zipping it up against the chill wind that was now reaching her through the thinning trees.


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