Tan stood trembling on the sandy beach with her back to the river. She was still wet from swimming, and the calculating icy stares of the five wolves creeping toward her sent an unexpected chill through her.
“Walk. Back. Slowly,” her dad said from the front seat of the SUV. “The inner tube is a few feet behind you. I promise they won’t follow you.”
Tan did not speak. She only nodded and stepped back. Her feet felt the sand change from dry to wet. She was close.
“Paddle to the middle and float down past the bridge. I’ll pick you up on the next beach.” Her dad started the engine. One wolf turned to look at the truck but quickly returned his gaze to Tan.
The wolves closed in tighter. This close, Tan could see they were not flesh and blood and bone, but red-eyed killing machines covered in fake fur. Her heel touched the black rubber inner tube. She took a deep breath.
“Now,” her Dad shouted. He laid on the horn—every wolf looked back.
Tan twisted and dove on top of the inner tube, kicking hard against the soft sandy river bottom. There was splashing behind her. Growls and snapping jaws. She didn’t look back at the beach. Tan kept kicking.
She kicked through the water until she was out of breath. The growls grew faint. Tan looked back at the riverbank. The six wolves were pacing back and forth in the shallow water. Her Dad was right, they didn’t follow her into the water.
Tan knew what the creatures were. Her dad had been talking about them for months. They were a new prototype robot dog developed by his research lab. Designed for search and rescue missions, they required less care and were more dependable than trained canines. But the robotic creatures were supposed to be locked in the lab, not running around a State forest.
She watched her dad speed away from the campground. Tan flipped over and planted her butt in the middle of the inner tube. The river current carried her downstream. She used her hands and feet as rudders to control her direction and dodge the large rocks. Floating backward down a series of rapids in an inner tube was dangerous, but it was the best way to make sure she stayed in the middle of the fast river, and away from the wolves.
Tan took one last look at the beach, at least one hundred feet upstream. The wolves were not there. Maybe they gave up and went looking for easier prey, Tan thought. Her relief was short-lived when she noticed large shapes crashing through the brush on that side of the river. They were following her. A few of the creatures were further down the riverbank like they knew her plan.
The gurgle of the river grew to a roar. She slid down the first drop-off of the rapids and a wall of water crashed on top of her, spinning the inner tube. It banked off a rock and tumbled down a narrow chute, dunking Tan’s head and shoulders into the freezing water, filling Tan’s mouth and nose. Tan gasped. She coughed out the icy water that was so cold it burned her throat.
The inner tube reached calmer water, and Tan scanned the river to get her bearings. She was closer to the shore now. Two of the wolves were hunched on the trunk of a fallen tree stretched out over the river. One was staring at Tan with calculating red eyes. The other wolf was howling with a high-pitched screech.
Tan forgot to check her movement through the water and soon found the current was pushing her too close to the tree. She kicked, she paddled with her hands, but the current was too strong. Tan drifted a few feet from the tree branches. The wolf closest to her launched at her from the log.
If Tan kept moving, she would meet up with the airborne wolf and it would tear her apart. She saw one of the tree branches underwater and pushed hard against it with her foot. The inner tube changed direction, and the creature splashed into the water beside Tan. The wolf struggled to keep its heavy frame afloat. It got a front paw over the inner tube. Tan placed her foot on the side of the creature’s snout and pushed. Its mouth snapped down on Tan’s foot. She watched the wolf’s evil eyes change from bright red to grey to black. Steam and smoke poured from its nose. Its jaw loosened and sharp teeth carved red channels of blood across the top of her foot as it sank under the water. The wolf on the fallen tree howled again.
Tan heard the next set of rapids before she saw them. She searched for a safe route and spotted a long flat drop-off. She kicked and paddled to line up the inner tube. Tan slid easily over the first ledge but headed straight for a broken branch wedged between two rocks. The inner tube collapsed onto the jagged branch. The current tugged on it until it tore the inner tube before bouncing off and tumbling the rest of the way through the rapids.
Tan leaned over to check for damage—there was a tiny hole just above the waterline. She cupped water in her hand and held it next to the hole. A small stream of continuous bubbles rushed out.
Tan calculated she had about three miles until she reached the take-out point. The inner tube might have enough air to make it that far. She placed her thumb over the hole and put pressure on it. Her foot throbbed and the cold water had turned her hands and bare legs a scary shade of purple-red.
The wooden footbridge was a few hundred feet away when she saw them. Tan watched two wolves run across the bridge and disappeared into the trees on the other side. Two more wolves stopped midway on the bridge. The bridge sagged in the middle and hung only a few feet above the rushing water. Tan kicked hard toward the far side of the river. The wolves moved to line up with her new course. She kept kicking until she was too close to the far shore, but here she would pass under the bridge with 4 feet between her and the creatures overhead.
The wolves stuck their heads through the ropes of the handrail. They barked and snarled at Tan as she approached. Tan tucked her feet in tight and tried to shrink deeper into the rubber tube. She watched one of the wolves move to the downstream side of the bridge. The first wolf continued to watch Tan and started barking in short intervals like morse code.
Tan wiggled backward in the inner tube, pushing her shoulders higher. The wolf’s short barks were getting closer together. As soon as the inner tube drifted under the bridge, Tan reached up and grabbed a rope dangling from underneath the four-foot-wide span. Her shoulder popped and pain shot down her arm. She let go of the rope. Tan watched the wolf on the downstream side of the bridge leap into the water three feet ahead of her. It sank underwater and never resurfaced.
“Just one more set of rapids,” Tan said out loud. She paddled back to the middle of the river and noticed her inner tube was much softer, less rigid. Tan had forgotten about the hole. She had twisted and turned and no longer knew where the hole was.
Tan stretched her body out so she wouldn’t slip through the inner tube when she reached to the next set of rapids. There was a smooth patch of water at the start of the rapids. Tan kicked in that direction.
She almost made it to the slot but bounced off a rock and the inner tube went into a wild spin. It bounced through the staircase of rapids like a pinball. Tan struggled to hang on.
The inner tube struck one rock head-on, and Tan flew from the tube into a deep channel, running between smooth rocks. The rushing current pushed her deeper and deeper until the light from the surface was faint. When she stopped tumbling, Tan’s feet found the riverbed, and she launched herself upward. Her lungs burned for oxygen as she kicked to the surface.
Tan dog paddled toward the shore. She would see the beach and her dad’s truck around the next bend of the river. She calculated how many creatures were left. There had been six on the beach. One wolf had sunk at the tree, another had gone under at the bridge. Two wolves had crossed to the far side of the river, which meant there was only one wolf left on this side. Dad could take care of one wolf. She scanned the riverbank for motion and saw nothing.
Tan was twenty feet from shore as she floated around the bend. Her dad’s SUV was parked a few feet from the water on the sandy beach. He must be inside the truck. There were no creatures in sight. Tan paddled hard, straight for the beach, eager to get somewhere safe, warm, dry.
Fifteen feet from shore, a large grey wolf stepped out from behind the truck. It was not like the strange mechanical creatures—it was a real wolf. One of the robot wolves appeared by its side.
Tan drifted out of the strongest current until she was ten feet off the beach. She straightened her legs and touched the sandy bottom. She could just hold her position in the river. The water was just below her shoulders.
“Dad,” Tan shouted. “Dad, what do I do?” The truck’s passenger window was down. Tan stretched to see inside, but her head was too low to see her dad in the driver’s seat. She squinted under the SUV. Beyond the dark shadows, she could see a shape. Stretched out on the ground, not moving, was her dad. A whimper escaped Tan’s chest.
The flesh and blood wolf stepped forward and placed his front paws in the water. The creature beside it lowered its head and backed away. The real wolf was the alpha of the strange wolf pack. Tan tried to keep her position in the river, but she was ice cold and shivering. She struggled to keep her feet planted on the river bottom.
“Dad, please get up,” Tan cried. Warm, salty tears streamed down her face.
The alpha wolf’s backside shifted back and forth. It lowered its shoulders and prepared to launch. Tam had one last horrible thought before the wolf crashed into her—real wolves don’t short circuit in the water.