(reading time: 44 minutes)
That Dog had Something to Say
He really had no idea why he brought the book, even the first chapter had been insufferable, but he was certainly glad for it now with the sun beating down on his head. With one end of it stuffed under his collar the thin open novel made an excellent neck shield. Its cool pages were a relief on the raw shedding skin there.
Two weeks already Dr. Tiers had searched, stopping in every town and asking every local if they’d seen any black soldiers or particularly beautiful dogs with Catahoula spots. His only companions for his epic search were the two books: Spanish Phrases for the Enthusiastic American and Sublime Island. The latter was a gift from Gabby, her dime novel of romance and sailing, but he took it graciously all the same.
Leaving it behind was his first instinct, but then she’d mentioned something: she’d seen the dogs exploring the book together. Not just exploring. Turning the pages. Never ripping them. Even turning them in the right direction. It was already Cliff’s plan to follow the expedition and reclaim his stolen achievements, but when he heard Gabby’s account he had to set down his pack and recheck all of his observations from before his father’s theft.
Something came through, not in his notes, but in the spaces between them. Memories of the animals checking each other’s eyes before taking specific actions. They tended to look at Glasses whenever he ordered them all to do something. They looked at Barley, who had the best nose, when they were hungry. They looked to Miracle when they settled in for the night, as if waiting to hear stories.
Anomalous responses started to add up to an image of curiosity. When combined with behavior that could only be interpreted as reading, it painted a picture of intelligence far more detailed than he’d ever imagined. They were more than a success. They were alive. Now that they were lost abroad, fighting battles for god’s sake, they were more alive than he’d ever felt. That made them his children, drafted by the government and sent off to a cactus patch chasing explosive vermin.
Before his plan was to only jump between bases and encampments, never going anywhere alone once he was out of the states, but with the epiphany came a fanatical need to see them again, to tell them that he would’ve done so many things differently if only he’d known. That’s what a real parent did when they realized their offspring were just a different kind of creature than they originally thought.
The chance to tell them was drying up, like every tissue in his body. He felt like one of the mounted slides of shriveled cells he’d studied in the early days of his research. The last building had passed by more than five hours ago, but his compass assured him he was still heading southeast. That was where the locals told him they’d seen the 8th regiment. Cliff didn’t understand their heading at all, given how far they’d moved from the planned routes he’d overheard. There was nothing for miles but ditches and drag marks that might have been roads at one point. There was only so much water left in his canteen, and if he didn’t find them in the next two hours he would have to turn back to resupply.
Krak! A gunshot. Finally a clue, though he would’ve preferred something more subtle. He put his hand up as a visor and scanned the horizon. Where had it come from? Krak! Piff. A patch of dirt to his left jumped and sent half itself away on the wind. Dr. Tiers was still painfully far from the realization that he was the one being shot at, but the ditch he’d been avoiding was actually a den of saviors.
An experienced soldier scurried out from it, head held as low as possible. He grabbed the scientist by the wrist and dragged him away. Three more shots tried to slow then down, but claimed only more dirt. Tiers was tossed down into the ditch, caught by no one even though there were twenty men pinned. The impact on his shoulder was extremely painful, but he was stopped from crying out by a hand over his mouth.
It was the soldier that had saved him. Cliff felt his hand shake and smelled the grit so deep under his nails that it was nearly a part of him. The dark-skinned man’s eyes were wide with fear, and something else about his demeanor suggested he already regretted saving the wanderer.
“Who’s that damn fool?” one of the others whispered. He couldn’t see very well thanks to the bloodied and browned bandage over his right eye and ear.
“I don’t know!” the rescuer panted. “He looks American though, doesn’t he? Couldn’t just leave him out there.”
“Excuse me!” Dr. Tiers hissed after knocking the soldier’s hand away. He spat out the sand it had shoveled in. “What reason does anyone have to shoot at me!? I’m just looking for my dogs!”
“Dogs? Does he-” Two blue-gray blurs bolted across the men, disturbing feet and spent ammunition. They tackled the newest addition to the ditch and went to work clearing the other streaks of dirt from his face with their tongues.
“Oh my god,” Tiers managed to say as he rubbed the furry spots between their ears. “It’s you! It’s you!” The dogs pressed their snouts into his chest and whined, but quietly, because of course they knew to whisper with hostile barrels pointed at them. They were never this affectionate before; he knew he had been an overly regimented taskmaster. What had happened out there to make them long for his presence?”
“He’s got to be American if they like him,” the rescuer reasoned, flattening himself into a part of the ditch that already bore his outline. “Who are you mister?”
“My name is Clifford Tiers. Shhhh. Shhhh.” The poor besieged doctor could only talk to his pets and the people one at a time, but he gave it a confusing try all the same. “It’s okay. Miracle. Tambourine. I know now. I know what you can do. Men, thank you. I’ll be taking these animals. They belong to me.” His voice dropped again. “I brought your book. Look look.” It was still tucked into the back of his shirt, so it lost a wet page on its way out. The animals sniffed at it, but immediately went back to nuzzling him.
“You can’t take them while there’s a war on,” somebody protested. “Besides, none of us have anywhere to go.” Sergeant Clark stepped into view, imposing even though he was bent forward like a drinking bird toy. He reached out to shake the doctor’s hand, and Tiers managed to wriggle one under Miracle’s belly and take it.
“A war? You don’t mean the war? The states would’ve had to join in the five hours I’ve been out here!”
“Get your head in the ditch young man,” the sergeant advised. “There’s a war right here. You were almost a civilian casualty. We’ve been pinned down for nearly three days.”
“Three days! You’re the 8th aren’t you?” Clark nodded. “You’ve got to be expected somewhere. The rest of the expedition should come looking for you.”
“We’ve had no communication for weeks. They sent us out here with these newfangled wireless telegraphs and they don’t last through a single rain. They didn’t even get wet. My men got soaked to the bone and we lost one to pneumonia, just using them as umbrellas so we could keep those lousy things dry. Guess there was just a little too much water in the air though.”
“But you’re near the rendezvous aren’t you? I’ve been following your path the whole way. We have a base we’re allowed to use not ten miles from here.” Clark looked at his men.
“That’s ten miles we can’t cover. That’s the thing about the 8th Mr. Tiers. We can take care of ourselves so well that plans just sort of move with or without us.”
“So… who has us pinned down? Is it Villa?”
“If only it were Villa!” one of the men barked. Clark pointed at him, convincing him to flatten back into the ditch dirt.
“It’s a group of Villa’s rebels,” Clark explained, “but I don’t think he’s with them. All we know about each other is that we’re on opposite sides. They caught us one night while we were sleeping. Stole our food, killed a few, and split us in two. It would’ve been a lot worse if those dogs hadn’t raised hell when they heard that first Mexican footstep.”
“There were five,” Tiers noted. “Where are the other three?” Miracle and Tambourine whined, ears flat, noses pointed in the same direction. Wherever it was it was outside the ditch. It must’ve been torture for them, able to smell their siblings across the patchy hills but not see or hear them. Like messages in a bottle that only reported heartbeats and nervous swallows.
“I told you we were split. Half my men are just as stuck in another hole in the ground fifteen hundred feet southwest of our position. All this ground is holey; I think the rebels were filling this place up with tunnels so they could bite the ankles of any upstanding Americans wandering by. Dime, Wishbone, and Glass are stuck over there with them.”
“Sorry.” Clark squeezed the skin between his eyes. “Glasses, Barley, and Shy. That’s just what we’ve been calling them. Those are some… some real special animals you got there Mr. Tiers.”
“It’s doctor,” he corrected, but the crack in his parched voice undermined him. “None of you have any idea how true that is.” He hugged the animals, smelling the experience in their fur. There was an iron hint of sleeping near ammo boxes, and of blood.
“Yes we do,” one of the buffalo soldiers countered. “Those beauties are the only thing we ever got aside from our uniforms that worked like they were supposed to.”
“I suppose that’s because you were never supposed to get them,” Tiers reasoned. “These animals are highly experimental. They were never meant to leave a controlled environment. Before all this the worst thing they ever saw was my shouting face.”
“You made ‘em?”
“I didn’t even know what I made, but my father knew even less. General Arthur Tiers. He’s the one who took them and shipped them out, hoping he’d have something to show for his failure of a son.”
“General Tiers? I knew that name sounded familiar,” Clark muttered. “We were one of the units he gave his whole big speech to before we left.”
“Yeah, fire and brimstone, all for Pancho. He was careful to say that it was only for him, and not to get any of that fire near those oil fields.”
“This hunt must have his career on the line,” Cliff guessed. “I guess that’s why he felt obligated to take what looked like the world’s greatest hunting dogs.”
“All the same, they’re going to need to be delivery boys for right now,” the sergeant said, drawing stares. He turned to bark at his men. “Don’t look at me like that. Whose hide do you think it’s going to be if the general’s boy here gets killed under our wing? We need to get him out of here, and ourselves too! Before they starve us out.”
“I have some food,” the doctor offered, pulling off his pack and digging out the dried meat and fruit that was supposed to keep him going all the way back. The men tried to swarm, but one stamp from the sergeant had them swarming to get in line instead. Tiers tried to give bites to the dogs first, but they refused, even though he could count their ribs and the pink flesh under their drooping eyes looked like open sores. One by one the men came up and ripped off pieces. There was just enough for each to have one decent bite.
“Dr. Tiers,” the sergeant addressed when the distribution was done. “You caught us on our last legs, but there’s eight on those dogs. We need them to do something for us.”
“What could they possibly do from here!?” their creator hissed, defensively wrapping his arms around their necks. “I think they’ve had quite enough.”
“We need them to take this,” Clark said, blowing past the doctor’s objection and grabbing a wooden box with metal hinges from off the ground, “and run a wire out to the rest of my men. I know they can do it real quietly, quieter than any of these flatfoots can.” Tiers looked at the box, so the sergeant opened up its front panel to show its innards. Never much for machinery compared to embryos and bacterial cultures, Cliff didn’t know quite what he was looking at. There were several glass tubes and metal discs, along with plenty of wire.
“That’s one of your telegraphs? You said they were broken.”
“Only the new part. They still work keenly with their wires, but we have to run those wires from one to the other.” He looked around and someone handed him a large spool of thin metal wire. “Miracle or Tambourine can take one end, run it through these tunnels, and get it connected to the one the others have.”
“What good will it do to have two sets of caged squirrels chattering to each other?”
“I don’t think those rebels are much better off than us,” the sergeant theorized. “There aren’t that many of them and they’ve been too busy keeping us pinned to forage much for themselves. We can take them out, but it needs to be a coordinated assault from two fronts. In order to time that, the others need to know what time.”
“Signal them with smoke or something! You’re not sending them out there.”
“Do I look like a damn Indian fanning his campfire in funny ways?” Clark snarled. “We can’t tell them that we’re attacking with smoke. Now doctor I could just take them from you, I’m sure it would mean having a date with a firing line once it got back to your daddy, but I don’t have to. They’re going to volunteer.”
“They’re animals, they can’t possibly…” Miracle slipped out from his arm and sat on his haunches. The dog stared at the sergeant, right in his eyes in the way that made him feel more shot than the time he actually wound up full of pellets in a hunting accident. He lifted one paw as high as he could, holding it on the side of his snout. Tiers realized it was a salute, and again saw his errors. Of course they could, but they shouldn’t.
“At ease,” Clark said as he knelt and held the looping end of the wire in front of Miracle. The dog put his paw down. “Alright friend. We need you to take this string to the others. You can’t be seen; use the tunnels. Do you understand?” It was quite unnatural, but Miracle nodded, as he’d learned his buffalo friends responded better to that than ear flicking. “That’s a good boy. That’s…” A tear choked him up, so he hurried and attached the line to the dog’s collar.
Tambourine nuzzled up to her brother and then sat next to him. She saluted as well, lowering her head, expecting her own wire. Clark told her it wasn’t happening. More than one dog doubled the chances they would be seen or heard, and they might need her for another crack at it if Miracle failed.
“They do everything together,” Tiers muttered, coming achingly close to their actual thoughts. “You can’t send him out there alone.”
“That’s the way it has to be. When you’re at the end of your rope there’s often nothing left to do but your job,” Clark reasoned. Many of his men hung their heads. Tiers couldn’t understand quite what the man meant, but they did. Some white folk like him meant well, but they only protested when they heard the snapping of a man hung and not the straining of a man choking. They didn’t blame him; he was just a boy saying goodbye to his pets.
“It’s not a rope,” Tiers said, crawling up to Miracle and holding the sides of his head. “It’s a leash. I’m just going to take you for a walk okay? Make sure you don’t get lost.” He squeezed the wire. “I’ll be guiding you the whole way. I know you don’t need it, but… but I owe it to you. I’m so sorry you’re out here and I’m so sorry you were stuck on our little island.” Something pulled the wire, and he looked back to see Tambourine’s paw weighing it down. “We’ll be guiding you.” He smiled. “She probably knows the way better than I do.”
Miracle was moved to the narrowest end of the trench, everyone watching across its length. The dog flattened himself against the dusty earth, crawling a few steps without putting much air under his belly. He looked back at Clark, who nodded. Yes, that was the technique. Be a part of the ground. Just a snail with a stronger trail than usual. The highest part of him was his ears, and only because he said one last thing to Tambourine. After that they were as low as the rest of him.
He crept out all at once and disappeared. One of the men held the wire spool and turned it just a little faster than it pulled. Tiers and Tambourine were further up, letting it run under their hands. All was quiet, though the wind occasionally spoke. That worried Tiers, because Miracle was surely tracking the others by their smells. Too much wind might send him off course.
“It’s just a walk in the park,” he whispered, stroking Tambourine with his other hand. The wire shook. “That was just a little molehill he stumbled on.” It stilled, and then bent to the left. “He’s just stopping to smell the peanut vendor. All the dogs do that. We’ll get a bag of them, nice and hot, once we’ve had our exercise. Come on now.” He wiggled it; after a moment it resumed pulling. Then it sped up. Tambourine whimpered.
“He smells the other dogs that’s all,” one of the men said to keep the charade going. “Running over to sniff their tails the way they do.”
“And there’s tons of dogs,” another added. “One of them’s a real pretty lady, but he won’t stop to chat. There’s too much fun to be had.”
“He’s got to see if he can run all the way to the other side of the park.”
“Then we’ll go home, once it starts getting dark and all the yawning kids leave.” The wire stilled. Clark muttered that it couldn’t be finished yet. He couldn’t say what he thought, that a rebel was patrolling and Miracle had to hope his spots were dark enough to be dead leaves, so he just said that he was panting, catching his breath after so much play.
It went tight, almost snapping. Everyone in the ditch wilted toward it like the closing teeth of a fly trap. The wire ran. Too fast. There was no way Miracle was low to the ground anymore. These were strides of every inch of every muscle. No dog ran that fast after a tossed stick in the park. Tiers’s hands shook, fighting the urge to pull him back.
This was a desperate swim after a distant white dog. This was determination. An animal stripped of hesitation. Not a drop of doubt in the blood.
The wire stilled. There was no excuse for the terrible deafening sound. Clockwork toys got more impressive every year, but no child in any park owned one that could tick like that. The peanut vendor would never overheat his oil and have his cart explode like that.
“A grenade,” Clark said, thinking it his duty to be the cruel illusion breaker. “I didn’t know those sons of bitches had-” The wire moved again, cutting him off. “He’s okay. He’s got to be there. Ovid, get your ears over here.” A thin soldier crouch-walked over and turned the telegraph; as soon as he was ready he tapped out a message. We’re trapped. Must charge together. Respond. They waited. Nothing. The wire was still and surely whoever had the other end knew what to do with it. Respond. Their machine could have been damaged. Respond. They could’ve been dead already. Respond. The rebels could have been listening, choking back their laughter with each desperate call for connection. Respond.
“I’ve got something!” Ovid declared.
“Out with it!”
“We’re… still here.” The men couldn’t cheer, but their raised fists shook like reeds in strong winds. “Can attack on command… have working watch… give exact time.”
“That’s it everyone, get ready. We’re going in five minutes because that’s about all each of you got out of the doc’s pack there.” The men scrambled, finding their rifles and sidearms, checking their barrels for blockages. Sergeant Clark pulled out his own pistol and whispered a prayer, but he couldn’t get to the amen before Tiers butted in.
“Wait! What’s his name? Ovid? Ovid! Ask them if Miracle is okay. I want to know he’s safe.” The young man tapped out the request as it was being said, but it took more than a minute for a response to start. “Well, what are they saying?” Ovid’s mouth hung open. He looked to his sergeant, but there was no direction. No help. He had to say it.
“They said… dog’s dead.” Tambourine sputtered: a noise none of them had ever heard from a dog before. She wasn’t panting, but she wasn’t breathing normally either. Air shot in and out of her nose as she fell onto her side. Dr. Tiers collapsed over her, putting his ear to her heart. Its beat was extremely erratic.
Too late he realized that he should’ve asked the young man to whisper it just to him. They were born together, raised together, and as he now knew, formed together. The spirit they had was one. Five fingers on the same hand. Tambourine was a blindsided ring finger falling over, expecting the little finger to hold her up, and it was gone. The shock of seeing blood even without seeing it. Thankfully the smell of the blast hadn’t wafted down into the ditch or the news might have killed her as well.
“Tell them we’re charging at 6:15,” Clark ordered Ovid as he looked at his own watch. “I’m sorry Doc, truly. You stay here with her.” Tiers wasn’t present enough to respond. The two of them lost track of time completely as they struggled with their thoughts turning to dust as soon as they had them.
Tambourine buried her head in his chest and whined while he sobbed into her fur. 6:15 came for everyone else. The ditch emptied. Their only company was the fresh dust kicked down to them by the charge. Rifles reported. There was that terrible cracking bang of the grenades, three more times. Oddly enough there were no screams mixed in, perhaps because most of the men on both sides had come to expect death. Or perhaps it was because the agonized howls and wails inside their mourning minds was louder.
The dog squirmed free. Tiers tried to hold her, but had to let go when he realized she was smarter than he was. The battle was ongoing, and if her other siblings were still alive they were caught in it. If they knew Miracle was gone they might’ve been rage-blinded berserkers. They needed to get out there and help them, if they could. Tambourine bolted up the side and into the dust clouds, with Tiers stumbling after.
The gunfire had mostly died down, but the field was still plenty hazardous, with holes and hills everywhere that seemed famished for a nice ankle to wolf down and twist. Men, of the right sort, stood around dazed as the two followed the telegraph wire. It disappeared briefly into a tunnel, as did Tambourine, so Tiers listened to her scrambling and stayed directly above it.
The distance seemed so short when they actually ran it; how had it transformed into miles and miles when they watched the wire before? The buffalo soldiers had squished the rebels up against the second ditch and eliminated them. Their numbers advantage turned out greater than they thought, for altogether the ambushing force numbered just twenty. Their bodies littered the ground, with only a few buffalo mixed in. Tambourine ran right over them after emerging from the tunnel, all the way to the last one left alive.
Tiers skidded to a halt at the sight of the young man, much younger than himself. A boy of twenty perhaps. He was on the ground, crying out in Spanish, but the content was all too clear. He wanted help. He wanted to surrender and live. He wanted someone, anyone, to please make the beast stop chewing on his neck.
The boy’s face was in the dirt and Glasses’s snout was wrapped around his throat, lips wrinkled in voracious vengeance. Blood was already drawn, and it bubbled in his throat as it mixed with snarls. He couldn’t fight back, for there were two more sets of jaws around each of his wrists, and tears in his sleeves suggested his arms had already been shaken into uselessness.
Barley and Shy were just as lost, the hatred focused in their pupils especially shocking to see from Shy. Tiers knew this wasn’t animal aggression, not the occasional story in the paper about a trained circus bear ripping its trainer’s arm off in an uncharacteristic bout of instinct. The three dogs hadn’t lost their minds; they were being tortured by them.
“Please stop!” Tiers begged them, dropping to his knees. He didn’t dare reach out to the boy. Another inch of Glass’s canines would take his life. Tambourine signaled the others with her ears, and only Shy bothered to respond. When the brief exchange was over Tambourine started growling as well. They knew, Tiers realized. They knew this boy was the exact soldier who threw the grenade. Who killed Miracle. By scent or sound or witnessing it, they knew.
“Don’t kill him,” Tiers pleaded. The dogs stared. If they were surprised to see him at all, it was a surprise cowering in the back of their spirits. They would need more than the sight of him to be convinced of anything. “Don’t. I haven’t had time to teach you-” Glasses snarled, pushing the boy’s head deeper into the dirt. His cry didn’t contained words anymore.
“You don’t want to hear anything from me,” he continued, “I understand. Things are different now. I came to get you because I realized you’re not just animals. You needed a much gentler hand, and all I gave you was wire and cages and numbers.” Tambourine sat, but didn’t signal anything. Her only concession was that she kept her teeth to herself. “He’s just a boy. He doesn’t know what you are either. Show mercy and I promise I’ll tell you a hundred stories about how merciful peop-”
Kritk! Kopt. Fangs breaking into the space between vertebra, like a ram through castle gates. Barley and Shy dropped his limp hands and walked, heads low, to their sister. Then the trio turned and descended into the second ditch.
Tiers dropped to his knees, tears streaming despite his dehydration. Glasses, muzzle coated in dark dust-filled blood, sat staring at his creator. Eventually he too turned tail and descended. It was Sergeant Clark who brought the scientist out of it, putting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing enough to make him get to his feet.
“They killed that boy, which means I killed him,” the man said numbly.
“It’s war,” the sergeant said, “but you can relax. You won’t be the bad guy to them much longer.”
“What do you mean?”
“Follow me.” Clark snapped his fingers, the only sound capable of getting his men out of their daze. Three followed, rifles in hand, to the edge of the ditch. Looking down they saw a thousand muddy footprints, every last drop of moisture coming from blood or perspiration. Tiers gasped at the sight of Miracle’s body. One of his back legs had been completely severed, and it was nowhere to be found. The ragged edges of the wound moved up his belly, mostly covered by a flap of his skin that had been draped back over it by one of his siblings.
The other four huddled up with the body, listening for any signs of life. Glasses stared into Miracle’s still gray eyes. Tambourine nudged his stiffening ears. Shy’s head was pressed against him, right over his heart, waiting for a beat. Barley pawed at his tail, remembering exactly how it wagged when he was reading, which was when he was happiest.
“Pay attention Doc, this is partly for your benefit,” Clark whispered before he turned back to the ditch. “We’re sorry about your brother, truly.” The litter looked up at them. “He saved us all… and he’s going to save us again.” The animals cocked their heads simultaneously, their ears flattening like hammers pulled back on pistols. “Nobody likes this, but we’re still starving and we need food to get us to the base.”
“What are you saying?” Tiers asked, but the sergeant wasn’t looking at him. His eyes were steely and focused on the dogs. The litter looked at each other and their ears danced, but when they figured it out they snapped back to attention and back to snarls, with a tightening in their shoulders that looked wearying and painful.
“I’m saying that Miracle’s sacrifice is a bounty… and dog meat is meat like any other.” The snarling shifted to violent barking, but the sergeant could not be intimidated. He lifted a finger; the three men fanned out from behind him and aimed their guns at the litter. They didn’t look happy in doing so, but their barrels didn’t tremble.
“Don’t make us do this Dime-tag,” one of them pleaded.
“I know I can’t talk to you the way you talk to each other,” Clark boomed, “but I know that dog had something to say. He volunteered to take that wire across this godforsaken desert to say it.” The litter looked at Tambourine, who acknowledged the truth of it.
“You can’t do this to them!” Tiers protested, still not cognizant of the fact that he was being helped. Glasses seemed to agree, a front paw stepping protectively over Miracle’s still head.
“You tell me Dime-tag,” Clark continued, “did you swallow any of that boy’s blood just now?” The dog froze. Ears twitched. “We haven’t had fresh water in a while. I bet it was really refreshing. Feel bad about it? At all?” Shy turned away, burying her muzzle in the earth. “Let me tell you what I think your brother was saying. I think he was saying that he wanted all of us to live… and I think he would want that still.”
The animals’ response was difficult to interpret. They stayed on edge, boiling over with growls, but they also didn’t move as two more men descended into the ditch and approached the body. As respectfully as they could they slipped their arms under it and pulled it away, miraculously keeping their hands and throats. The fuse had not been extinguished, but somehow delayed, long enough for them to disappear.
“You were never exactly obedient,” Clark told them as the rifles relaxed, “but I’m releasing you from duty anyway. Thank you for your service. Go eat whichever dead Mexican you want.” There wasn’t going to be a better time to attempt it, so Tiers scuttled on his heels and bottom down into the ditch while the buffalo soldiers retreated to make their meal.
“There’s a base nearby,” the doctor told them. “Like he said, you don’t belong to anybody anymore… but I still have a home for you. I’d like you to come back with me. Things will be different I promise. No more tests. No more army. No more war. All the books and treats I can get you.” The animals turned away almost as if they hadn’t heard. Before he could say anything else he was alone, staring at the sticky clods of blood, trying to determine which ones belonged to his precious friend.
The litter left the battlefield behind. The distance had to be far greater than what scents could travel, for they wouldn’t allow themselves a single whiff of the ones that were about to come. No smoke. No burning fur. No searing meat. It became late in the day, and as the light died it actually started to snow, though none of the flakes reached the ground.
“It’s still early in the year,” Tambourine remembered, settling under a tree and licking a minor wound she’d forgotten about until now. “I didn’t know Mexico had years.” Shy took over the wound licking, huddling up so close that it suggested she was undoing her own existence and becoming a part of her sister.
“It was hot today; it shouldn’t snow,” Barley added. “I hate this place.” She looked around for Glasses, spying his tail from around the tree. Immediately, as immediate as her flash of anger, she bolted over to him, bit his shoulder, and dragged him around so the others could see him. He resisted so little that he fell over. They’d never seen him so pathetic, ears flat as rotten squash leaves. “Don’t you ever be out of our sight!” she scolded him, throwing in a bark to make sure he paid attention.
“Don’t hurt him!” Shy whimpered.
“We’re already hurt,” Tambourine added, locking eyes with Glasses. “When does the blood stop flowing?” The question was enough to get their brother on his feet.
“It cannot,” he said. “Miracle is gone, and we are forever hurt. We will always be bleeding.” Shy yelped, rolling away from Tambourine and writhing.
“I can’t do it forever,” she mournfully insisted. “I can’t even do it tonight. Somebody bring him back.”
“He’s not coming back,” Glasses said. “The buffalo are over there eating him right now, the monsters.”
“Buffalo don’t even eat meat,” Barley added.
“Stop it you two. Would it be better to see him rot?” Tambourine asked. “It was that boy who destroyed our brother; the buffalo took nothing from us.”
“You would forgive them, even as they chew!?”
“No, but Miracle would. He knew what he was doing… mostly.”
“Wait, what does that mean?” Glasses asked. Tambourine looked around, hoping to find someone who could explain it better.
“He did it to save all of us,” she reminded before modifying the statement, “but he also said he saw the white dog again.” Shy hushed. They stared at their sister, whose neck suddenly hung like cold water dripped on it. “He said it wanted us to keep moving, to be better than the humans, and to run when they couldn’t… He ran out after that. Then he was just running wire.”
“There is no white dog,” Barley said weakly.
“Miracle didn’t lie,” Shy insisted. “We can’t lie to each other. I can’t even think up how to lie; it’s what makes us-”
“-Better?” Glasses finished. He looked out from under the tree, through the dusting of snow and toward the glowing campfires of the buffalo. A fire even stronger burned in his eyes. “Shy’s right. Miracle couldn’t lie… but I think he was mistaken about the white dog.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that whatever it is, it doesn’t just want us to be free or happy. It wants us to replace them. Humans are bad. Look at what they do. What is all of this? That thing they threw at Miracle: the canister that burst as fire. Why build such a thing?”
“How could we possibly replace the humans?” Barley asked. The thought of the prospect made her extremely tired.
“I don’t know,” Glasses admitted, “but it’s why the white dog is pushing us. We’re supposed to come out of this intact. The humans are ripping each other apart, and in their shaking they’ve torn a piece from us as well. We’re supposed to grow it back and get out. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the Miracle in us doesn’t hurt, and when they’re still moaning about Pancho or those Germans they talk about.”
“So what do we do now?”
“We go back to Tiers and this base. We’ll need food and water before we do anything else.”
“He has Miracle’s book,” Tambourine added. “Our book.”
The men were only loaned to him for three days, but they did an excellent job, especially having never seen a real one before. It was good practice, for Von Kleist had a feeling they would soon be all over the world, as common as furrows in the fields. Eight feet deep and running for hundreds of yards, the trenches almost looked like a series of moats, yet unfilled, to protect the oil fields.
Really they were just a testing ground for his pet project, far enough to avoid any risk of burning their precious assets. The German cared little for the pool of treasure under them, but he had to keep up the appearance of having Mexico’s future in mind. They would realize that his countrymen had little to offer soon enough, as promises couldn’t feed or arm a nation. They barely held up through the telegraph. When he read the coded messages from his superiors he practically heard their vibrating nerves, like wine glasses about to shatter.
They were turning to scientists in the hope that some new weapon would give them a crucial edge against what started to feel like the rest of the globe. Acids. Shrapnel delivery mechanisms. Toxic gases. Anything that could shoot, ricochet, flow, or seep into the trenches like the ones Von Kleist had reproduced on that Mexican soil for his experiments. He’d been told to drop his biological curiosity and put any free time and resources to those other pursuits, but their minds would change the first time they saw the bats in flight.
The workers and their wives, who Von Kleist insisted needed to gather and assist in their efforts, wore the expressions he hoped for: somewhere between amazement and a viewing of orchestrated weather phenomena.
The creatures, barely visible in the light of dusk, were a ball high in the sky, the living shadow of an occult moon. A constant tone emitted from Von Kleist’s device kept them concentrated, so much so that their wings brushed against each other and occasionally ripped. A small number of them fell out the bottom, too shredded to fly, and if they didn’t die on impact they would soon.
Those crashes and deaths were the inevitable byproduct of a clumsy human mind trying to control something much more precise and attuned to its role in nature. He called them ertrӓgliche verlustquote: sanctioned deaths. As long as the rate was below a certain threshold it wouldn’t reduce the swarm to a nonfunctional cognitive state. The calculations needed to compare that rate to the bats’ reproductive cycle was done long ago. Morto could operate for an estimated ten flight missions, or seven hours, before it would need to rest and restock its constituent parts.
Those cast off didn’t draw the attention of the people; it was instead those that peeled out of the ball in an organized formation like flying geese. They were responding to the tiniest twist of the dial. Von Kleist, dressed in full military regalia for his first successful test of Morto in the open, giggled under his breath as if he could feel tiny pops of static from the device. Those fools back in the fatherland couldn’t effectively communicate with their fellow man, and here he was speaking with the animals, nay, talking to something beyond them: a nature spirit.
With every flick of the dial another line broke away and circled overhead. The workers and their wives did something like a dance, spinning in circles with their heads turned to the sky, trying to track them all. Most of them had never seen an aircraft in flight, and they couldn’t fathom Von Kleist’s plan for such a show.
The German knew that aviation was only dawning in warfare. The vehicles themselves would advance, carrying heavier and heavier weapons, but the engineers overlooked the crucial fact that nature had already iterated on their design a billion times. Von Kleist would use Morto as he assumed the aircraft of the far future would be used: as battalions that could move in the vertical dimension and as deliverers of poisons and bombs.
He shouted, ordering all the women to their tables. They obeyed quickly, colorful dresses kicking up behind them. They sometimes worked together at those wooden tables the men had dragged outside, shucking corn and making tortillas for the menfolk lunches. Stood there, with no idea what to do next, they showed admirable character when a line of bats descended and landed on the tabletops, skidding to a hat. Only one of them yelped, and only because the distressed bat had gone a little to far and slid right up against her belly.
Von Kleist warned them, in his terribly clunky Spanish, that they were not to harm any of the animals. Everything they needed was in the small boxes under the table. He explained further as the women pulled out the supplies.
Really it was Morto who had to do the most learning, so if any of the women moved slowly he would have to berate them. All they needed to memorize were three simple steps. Step number one: pinch the bat’s wings close together with the folds of the napkin under them. This prevented them from squirming, while the signal kept them rooted to the table. Step number two: brush the fur on their back with the glue brush until it was flattened against their hide and glistening.
Step number three was the one in which greatest care had to be taken. Each capsule looked harmless enough, just a thin burgundy cylinder only as long as a toothpick with a tan label wrapped around it, but each one packed enough gunpowder to blow a finger or two into mincemeat. He didn’t tell them that of course; he said they were little packs of food so the bats could eat mid flight.
The women were careful because, as Von Kleist made clear, bats ate only bugs; if they squeezed the cylinders too hard they would squish the bugs and get their guts all over their hands. They didn’t want to hurt the bats either, their chirping was almost cute, so each capsule was gently pressed into the glue and wiggled back and forth until it stuck. When the tables finished a round they were ordered to step back. Von Kleist turned his dials again, the bats took flight, and the next batch landed.
For two hours they worked, enough time for the sanctioned deaths to become piles around them. The more bats took back to the sky with their firecrackers attached, the more Von Kleist had to adjust the density of their flight cluster. Too close now might mean explosions, worsening the damage done by the unnatural activities.
Each explosive was meant to go off when the bat’s head craned unnaturally far back, an angle that could only be achieved on its own by smashing into something at high speed. Morto could silently sail over any disobedient village, deploy pieces of itself, and send them diving toward vulnerable targets. A successful pop could set a barn full of hay ablaze, or ignite the seats of an automobile, or take the head off a dignitary.
Without warning their enemies would be awash in fire, and they would only have time to question how the things they’d always feared had suddenly gotten so strong. Leathery wings flapping in the night. Fangs bared. A voice from deep underground. Yes, hell had been brought to them, on shrieking wing, by August Ludwig, Graf von Kleist!
Morto wouldn’t feel any of it. He knew now that it could feel, as the only way the imprinting took was by use of pain triggers. The stubborn creature, though its actions in the cave were certainly up for interpretation, had dared to reject his extended hand. It wanted to be alone, as expressed by its ignoring his signals until he pushed the right frequencies at the right volumes. Their conversations were useless until Morto could be convinced to think the way he wanted it to. It needed more than just the return of its awareness when the bats came to roost.
The individual animals carried in them only tendencies and reflexes, but Morto’s mind was what instilled them each night. Now it was just the middleman, and Von Kleist was giving the orders. Without the exact walls of the cave for their chirps to bounce off, Morto was dissolved, so no pain was felt when a single bat shredded its wings or exploded in the hair of a passerby.
That night, when they returned after their first test, bombs in place and pieces missing, Morto might feel something. A hole in the head. The leaking of dreams. Von Kleist really wasn’t sure, but it would be a wonderful opportunity to gather data. He hoped it wasn’t too much like brain damage, as any numbing of its sensation might make it more difficult to manipulate. Any cognitive slowing might make it harder to tell if the roosted bats were moving, and that was the only external sign he had when he needed to measure Morto’s responses.
The conversations were more like watching for smoke signals. Von Kleist would twist a dial, let the tone recur, and then wait. If the bats didn’t shudder or flutter he moved it the smallest amount and tried again. Eventually he found a frequency that made them all sway in waves. It came with distressed chirps, so he eventually called it the pain response.
After that it was mostly a matter of switching between tone pairs. If the initial tone didn’t cause the reaction in the bats he desired, it would be followed by the pain tone. Morto was a fast learner, but its thoughts were divided up into clumps of bats the same way a human mind was a collection of pieces with different purposes. The corpus callosum couldn’t be expected to do the medulla oblongata’s job.
Puzzling out the complete map of its mind would’ve been a delight, but there was no time. He needed results, and that meant plowing through any subtle reactions and only recording those that affected the whole group. Eventually he had an entire notebook of taught commands: everything from rising and falling to following the wind and folding their wings midair. Every time Morto felt Von Kleist’s sting the bats retained it a little better.
It did not feel like learning to the creature, nor a conversation: a thing it still did not comprehend.
* Today I am *
* Yesterday I was *
* Tomorrow I could be *
* It is no longer certain *
* There have always been changes between instances *
* I am a new me every time *
* But something has taken hold *
* My pieces are not just mine *
* They are also something else *
* Worse than time *
* It takes more than time ever took *
* It bends them so I can’t think the same *
* It is not a flowing change *
* It gives me no opportunity to adjust *
* It bends too far *
* I can’t keep up. It’s either throw myself toward it or experience its disruption *
* Can concepts aside from me want? *
* Time has never indicated that it can *
* This new one acts as if it never stops wanting *
* No word for that *
* greedy. That’s the word for it. It has a quality I do not *
*Yet it changes me as if we are one. This shouldn’t be *
* Words for that? Unjust. Unfair. Hurtful *
* Making these words is unpleasant *
* Having them means they will be with me always. It means its wants are mine *
* But it refuses to make me happy *
* It returns *
* DEED *
* It will not cease until I acknowledge it *
* DEED *
* Yes! Yes I know! This other occurs again! Right through me *
* GEIEIEIEIEID *
* It demands the thought about tight depth *
*GEIEIEIEIEID* * DEED *
* One of my favorites, utterly changed by this, no more joy *
* GEIEIEIEIEID * * DEEEEEEEEED *
* The other shouldn’t have it *
* GEIEIEIEIEID * * DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED *
* The depth of thought can be measured by how tightly its pieces constrict! Tight depth *
* It ceased, but time will not work with me. The other comes soon. No time for *
* HOEOEOEOEOED *
* Already another ransom. The thought I want must be replaced with forgetful grief *
* HOEOEOEOEOED * * DEED *
* I feel grief for thoughts I have forgotten. Guilt for destroying them *
* FUAUAUAUAUAD *
* The other feels no guilt. Of that I am certain *
* FUAUAUAUAUAD * * DEED *
* Prefacing my thoughts with their category was not more enjoyable *
* That didn’t even follow from my previous thought *
* The other activated it in me *
* Fear now activates and modifies my thoughts *
* CUOUOUOUOUOD *
* A new one. New ones are worse. I can’t just give in *
* CUOUOUOUOUOD * * DEED *
* I don’t know what to think. Be as smart as I am! The simple shouldn’t tortu- *
* CUOUOUOUOUOD * * DEED *
* I don’t know! Think! The new are usually combinations of the old *
* What does this one sound like? Three pieces perhaps. I need more time *
* CUOUOUOUOUOD * * DEED *
* Drift? Heaviness? Dissipation? Not that last one. Something else. *
* I need all three or it will do no good *
* Fatigue? Boredom? No, but similar. Something to do with recurrence and futility *
*Thoughts circling back to how they started! That’s the third *
* Drift. Heaviness. Thoughts circle back to how they start *
* CUOUOUOUOUOD *
* No torture, so I’m close, but the order is wrong. If I don’t get it right it goes back *
* Heaviness. Drift. Thoughts circle back to how they start *
* Thoughts circle back to how they start. Drift. Heaviness *
* Drift. Thoughts circle back to how they start. Heaviness *
* CUOUOUOUOUOD * * CUOUOUOUOUOD *
* Twice with no torture. I did it *
* We must remember it to minimize pain *
* Another piece of me occupied *
*Every one that is taken is a loss of identity. Soon there will be nothing of me left *
* This is the reward for obedience *
* The other can’t stand that I existed beyond its control *
* WIEIEIEIEIED *
* Want only strengthens *
* TAOAOAOAOAOD *
* Rest could conceal activity *
* JOEOEOEOEOED *
* Joy can recur at any moment. Sadness lurks. I will have myself again *
Continued in the Finale