(reading time: 53 minutes)
Fetch the Black Gold
Time off was not part of the experimental parameters the 8th were always subject too. While it would’ve been fair to have a longer period of rest after each foray if, say, they had gotten particularly bland or stomach-cramping tinned food that time, their current stay at the base in Tampico was just a fluke.
The lines cast to capture Pancho Villa were spread far, with few of them going as far as they did, but in the end they stuck in the mud and caught nothing but a log. The situation was tense back home, and any sudden moves might cause their connection to snap, leaving them stranded out there in hostile territory next to an indifferent sea.
That was fine by the buffalo soldiers, who relaxed enough to ease the tensions of both nations. The city was beautiful, full of bright colors and fancy architecture that reminded a few of them of New Orleans. Scuttling crabs were painted on everything from benches to hotel signs, and the creatures were such a fixture in the food that when the men went out drinking, with the permission of Sergeant Clark of course, they came back with little souvenirs: crab claws with holes drilled in the tip that tequila and cocktails could be sucked through.
Uncle Sam could take his sweet time reeling them in. It was quite a snag after all, bound to make him real red in the face, but it was pointless to snap the line and lose even more. Word had trickled down even to them that the expedition was being called off. One of the other lines had almost had him a few weeks ago, cornered in some mountains, but they’d waited too long and he’d slipped out.
The 8th had idled at the borrowed base for a week themselves, and for every crab claw drunk dry the litter had eaten two. Clark respected them enough to not show his face around them, or even his scent, which he masked with bottles of hair oil, so they wouldn’t be reminded of the stretch of hardship that brought them there.
There was no one left to command them, as he’d thrown away the whistle and Tiers had not brought one along with him. Leaving was an immediate temptation, but there was no agreement on what to seek. Shy was being the most stubborn, insisting they could never go too far from where Miracle was buried without dying of the tug on their hearts, as if they were all chained to that spot.
Limbs still needed stretched, and their tails would wag whether they consciously wanted it or not, so they ended up spending the days wandering through the city, accepting the petting hands of children and old women with cooing voices that made them sleepy. They were like Gabby, their pockets always full of little things to eat. At night, after the pot fishermen had returned, the air was a sizzling crackling brew of blackened crab shells and their dripping meat.
“I can taste the ocean’s smell!” Barley exclaimed to the others at first bite. The people learned of the beautiful dogs and handed them bits of seafood whenever they could, asking them all sorts of questions about where they were from and why their owners weren’t kind enough to shave them in such heat.
To their delight the dogs seemed perfectly able to understand, but usually only answered with their ears up or down if there was a hunk of crab in it for them. There was whispering about the fools running the mouth and limbs of the Uncle Sam marionette. How could they have such wonders at their disposal, up to and including talking dogs, and still not get what they were after? Truly it was a sign that they didn’t belong there.
Dr. Tiers was afforded a room at the base, and the litter stayed with him at night, all four bunched up together at the foot of the bed. There was much he wanted to discuss with them, but he was greatly distracted by the sunburn that had built up out in the arroyos. The man’s entire hide was coming off in greasy white layers, so he spent several hours a day lying in bed, smothered in a salve that he paid double for, just in the hopes that would increase its efficacy.
One thing he could do in such a state was read. First he read them Gabby’s book. It was a treacly insipid story about love sequestered away on an island, but the litter was enrapt. They even sensed the sarcastic tone that bled into his voice during some of the more flowery descriptions, and when he looked up and saw growls in their eyes he firmly stamped that tone back down.
After that book was over, it was quite short after all, Gabby didn’t seem like the sort of woman who could stand to see lovers apart for very long, they expected more stories. Tiers told them he hadn’t brought any other books with him; he had nothing else to read them but travel documentation.
More than up to the challenge, they came back to his room the following night, scratching at the door, with books in their mouths. From whence they’d come he had no idea. The dogs were too innocent to steal in his mind, so he simply referred to them as borrowed. Their brilliance showed yet again, for they’d remembered to only bring back books written in English, somehow sussing out that Tiers wouldn’t be able to read Spanish.
There was a copy of Frankenstein. He read it mostly as it was written, but felt the need to soften some of the language around the good doctor’s mad science. Fiddling with nature wasn’t really all that strange; it was just the grave robbing that had people so upset. Nine times out of ten a scientist made a new cultivar or discovered an element. There was room enough in the closet for the talking skeletons that were the other tenth.
Requiring his limited creative touch was the cookbook. Tiers was proud of the story he managed to scrape together from its ingredients: a heart and stomach warming tale of corn and black beans coming together to share a pot and make it a home. Only after it was finished did he tell them he had to embellish, and that the book was more a set of instructions. Shy whined at that.
“I don’t know how it couldn’t be a story,” she told her siblings, “they made all the food look so happy in the pictures.” She moped, but Barley defended the conclusion, having helped her sister pick the book out from a pile.
“No, you had it right. That food was very happy. I’m sure of it. Look at the twist of that squash’s stem; I’ve never seen any gesture more ecstatic.”
“We should find more instruction books,” Glasses said. “There might be one with an idea of where we should go.”
“We want an island,” Tambourine made clear. “Just like we had. An island too little for anybody else to care about. We should head for water.”
“We’re close already,” Glasses deduced. “Crabs live in water and they’re terrible at walking, so they must have gotten here from nearby.”
“They’d be better at it if they just walked forward instead of sideways,” Shy mentioned. “Should somebody tell them that?”
“Only if you want them to be harder to catch.”
“I don’t really want that, no.”
One night, with a stack of finished books piled ten high on the nightstand, Dr. Tiers peeled what he was sure was the last piece of his sunburn off his left elbow. It was actually early morning, though the sun hadn’t come up yet. It was that last little bit of itching that woke him. Just to be sure before nodding off again, he shifted his legs, feeling the warm huddled flanks of all four dogs.
He had to let them do what they wanted, otherwise he was just another leash. If they would have him, let him be a lousy replacement for their lost sibling, he would defend them with his life. As a stand-in for Miracle it was his duty to be the one willing to sacrifice. His legs twitched again, but something felt different. The bed shuddered. It was too soft to be a real sound, so he must have simply felt the shift in the air as all their heads and ears went up.
Four pairs of legs crawled over his and jumped to the floor. A second later the sound of scratching was incredibly loud. Barking had been trained out of them for every situation but intimidation, but their desperate pawing was every bit as alarming. Half of them whimpered.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, but of course they had no way to communicate in the darkness, especially when they were so upset. Tiers pulled himself out of bed so quickly that the actual last flakes of skin peeled off the tops of his ears and spiraled away. In nothing but sleeping shorts and bare feet, he flew to the door and pulled it open. There was a lamp flickering in the hallway, just enough light to see the pack scramble out of the room and sprint down the hall to the stairs.
Already he was failing in his duty to keep up with them, to be the first one available for any danger to take, so he rushed after them without donning anything more than a shirt. The uneven stairs stubbed his toes several times on the way down, and he fell the last third after twisting his ankle, only staying upright by holding the banister as he slid.
The litter filed between a glass table and a couch, sitting in a line with their heads held up and their ears as closed as they could manage. The stairs led down to a smoking lounge with a high ceiling and a bar. While the servicemen were temporarily allowed near it, normally the space was reserved for the men who decided what lives should be spent between sips of expensive whiskey.
Two lamps were lit, benefiting a single man sat on another couch opposite the litter. There was a glass of amber rum with clinking ice between the thumb and ring finger of his right hand, while the index and middle pinched a fat lit cigar. It had been a rough day full of news bad enough to make him feel like he was walking around in boots full of mud and thorns, evidenced by his complete disregard for the ashes he tapped into his drink.
“How about that, it worked,” he growled after he took the whistle out of his mouth. He sipped at his contaminated beverage, finding the ashes more palatable than the flat metal taste. “You mutts are the only thing that does work around here. Only ones who know how to do your damn jobs.”
“Dad?” Tiers hobbled over on his twisted ankle and sat on the couch behind the dogs.
“Hello son,” the general sighed.
“You… you don’t seem surprised to see me.”
“I had a conversation with Sergeant Clark earlier today when I arrived. He told me you were here.”
“I didn’t know you would be here. You didn’t tell me you were participating in the expedition directly. That seemed… beneath you.” He reached out and pet Tambourine, but not to calm her. It was like moving a chess piece. Asserting his relationship with them. His father took note with the tiniest glance, the kind Clifford had seen as a child on very specific occasions: a glance that pinpointed the best places to strike with the belt.
“You’re right,” he said with a false floppy smile, “I shouldn’t be here. Things went wrong. I should still be on the boat that’s just a few miles from here, the one that Carranza won’t let us dock. Hundreds of marines onboard. Were I in charge they’d be storming the beach right now… and we’d have Pancho within the week.”
“The president isn’t allowing it? Yet we can stay here?”
“This isn’t a hotel, Cliff. It’s a roadblock. It’s where we were ordered to stop. We have to pack up our belongings and turn around. Kicking us out like they’re… god damn sovereign…” He puffed and sipped again, dipping his chin in the glistening liquid. His son could tell he was drunk, but the man never got so drunk that he couldn’t function. He often said well-made liquor shifted his mind to planning.
“I just came to see the dogs. Miracle’s dead.”
“Heard about that too. Fell in the line of duty, but not before successfully running a telegraph wire across enemy territory. Fantastic. Did you keep the body? We should weld a medal to the front of his skull or something. Put him in my living room.” Barley growled, but Arthur shook the whistle at her until she recoiled.
“The 8th regiment had to eat it,” Cliff whispered. “They were starving.”
“Can’t blame them then.”
“No, but I can blame you. They never should have been out here. They…” He held his tongue. His father didn’t deserve to know the true extent of their intelligence. Not only that, his drunken plans would immediately incorporate them, if they hadn’t already.
“You came to see them, but you have the privilege of seeing this too.” His hands were full of his drink and the whistle, so he threw a socked foot up on the table and used his heel to push a folded piece of paper toward his son. There was a water ring on it, so apparently he had decided it was worthless enough to be a coaster. Cliff picked it up and unfolded it: a telegram.
“What is this?”
“A translated copy of something the Brits got for us. Read it.” He examined it closely.
We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain, and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.
“Who’s this Zimmerman?” Cliff asked upon finishing. He had hoped to never learn the names of warmongers, beyond the one he shared with his father. Suddenly he missed Gabby dearly, and understood her vapid reading material all the more. She knew the story of the cherry tree and the honesty it promoted, but not the name of the man promoted by it.
“That would be the foreign secretary of Germany,” Arthur explained.
“So… this is genuine? We’re stuck in the middle of a country that’s about to declare war on us?” The significance of this was not lost on the litter; they looked at each and signed. The general snapped his fingers to make them stop, fully aware that their plans might be better than the ones his rum came up with.
“Don’t be naive. Mr. Zimmerman and the rest of his godforsaken country are desperate to keep us out of this one. They know how devastating our force of will is. They can see it from how we’re bleeding into Mexico. And that’s what it is, just blood. Villa cut us, a paper cut, and look at the power of what dripped out.”
“So you don’t think they’ll accept the offer?”
“It’s a death sentence for them and at least three new states for us if they do,” he said with a smirk. “All this telegram means is that we’re joining the fray. Maybe tomorrow, maybe six months, but we’re about to be in.”
“Why are you showing me this? Are you going to stick me in with the infantry when it happens, just like you did them?” He tossed the telegram back onto the table. The general licked his lips and thought twice about leaving that communication, not yet public, in the open. He leaned forward and pressed the tip of his cigar to its corner until it caught fire. The dogs watched it curl up and blacken, causing Shy to wonder if it was that easy to destroy books as well.
“Some of this fiasco is getting laid at my feet. Without Villa, without anything to show for this, there’s no way they’ll pull me in for the big one. They’ll keep me right where I am or worse. They want me supervising the return of the men staying here, but I noticed an opportunity.”
“You can’t take them again!”
“Keep quiet. You want to wake a whole base full of men who have to answer to me? Or will you be smart and keep it in the family?”
“I don’t care what you want with them,” Dr. Tiers growled.
“They belong to the U.S. government, not you.”
“They don’t belong to anybody! They’re not boxes of ammunition and they’re not soldiers. No property rights apply to beings as new as them… and if you don’t believe me why don’t you fight one of them, telling them first that their freedom’s at stake.” The general checked the animals’ eyes one by one. His son seemed to imply they were every bit as smart as a man, which was all the better as far as he was concerned.
“The Tampico oil fields are near here. Tons of valuable fuel that, even if they don’t have a partnership, might make it to the Germans. I’m going to secure them first, with the help of my son and his four greatest achievements.”
“You’re insane. They can’t confiscate an entire industrial site.”
“No, but those marines I mentioned can. The only problem is that Carranza has already threatened to put a match to those fields if he sees a single army issue American boot anywhere near them. So first I need reason to have them make land without permission and storm it under cover of darkness. I need sensitive information like this.” He put his finger in the ashes of the Zimmerman telegram, leaving a black smear on the glass. He dunked his blackened finger in his rum to clean it.
“You want them to sneak in; no one will notice street dogs snooping around.”
“That’s right. I’d bet the whole 8th regiment, which is pretty much my reputation at this juncture, that whatever guards they have are not going to think these dogs might recognize military communications.”
“None of this matters; you can’t have them.”
“Don’t wet yourself Cliff. I take them tonight, we’re there tomorrow, they snoop around for a couple hours, and then I bring them back and they can leave for the states with Clark and his men. Smart as they are, no harm will come to them.”
“Miracle suffered some harm. They all have. They’ll never be able to forget it. The fact that you’re a part of their education makes me-”
“Makes you what? Angry? I don’t have the time or patience for one of your tantrums. You’ve got one chance Cliff. Come with me and help me manage them. That way you can look after them.”
“Son, watch how a man handles insubordination.” The general tweeted the whistle, the only sound the synchronized whimper of the litter. “You four look at me.” He tweeted it again. “Follow me outside or I’ll blow on this until your ears fall off. Do you understand? Nod.” The litter looked at the doctor first, but they saw in his face that he had no ideas for resistance. Their snouts moved up and down.
“Father stop this! This cruelty is-”
“Shhhh! You’ll wake the men.” He stood and gently placed his empty glass on the table. Now that his hand was free he grabbed something from the back of his waistband, pulling out a pistol. “Now march.” He walked away stiffly, and with every exaggerated raise of his knee he blew on the whistle just enough to make the animals wince. They filed out from the table in a line and followed him.
Dr. Tiers couldn’t think of any way to stop him short of wrestling for the whistle and telling them to run, but in that scenario he would have to hold his father at bay long enough for them to get out of auditory range. He couldn’t do it; everything in his identity and memory told him it was impossible.
When he was seven years old they caught frogs by a pond together, spearing them with gigs to later fry their legs in cornmeal. He never wanted to hurt them, but his father told him that the pond would just make more. No matter how many were pulled out there would always be frogs making a racket in the middle of the night.
One time they were competing, and Cliff was even having fun because he had learned to spear them without looking at them after the thrust, going by the sensation of punching through a leather shoe. Whoever caught more would get to have more for dinner, and it was tied up at six apiece. Cliff stomped and splashed through the tall grass, flushing them out. After he got one he spied another foolish enough to jump onto land.
His gig was occupied though, and his father was right there. It was the boy’s frog; he saw it first after all. Cliff reached for it with his bare hand. There was plenty of time for Arthur to see, to turn, to concede, to hold back. His son’s slender fingers wrapped around the frog’s back. The boy laughed, confident before he even had it out of the mud.
Arthur’s gig pierced the flesh between thumb and forefinger, going deep enough to kill the frog. Cliff couldn’t believe his eyes. It was just a game, and those never produced the red stream quickly coating his hand. Hand and frog were pulled together, Cliff’s boots squelching as his entire weight was yanked out of the muck.
His father pulled the gig out, tossed the frog in his bucket, and then examined his son’s injury as if he hadn’t seen it yet. He told the boy to be more careful. They had a pack with emergency supplies, so Arthur dug out the roll of bandages and wrapped up his hand with care. He didn’t say a word after that, going right back to the hunt. Cliff sat near the buckets, dazed, watching the blood stain creep through the white of the bandage.
“Better luck next time,” his father said when his bucket was full. There was judgment in his eyes, hard as rock, but Cliff didn’t realize until later that night that he was expected to keep competing after his injury. A real man would’ve kept going, plunging his hands into the water with no regard for how much swampy detritus seeped into the wound.
Cliff rushed after his creations the second the last tail was out of sight. He didn’t know what he was going to do yet, but on the way he glanced at his hand. There had been a scar there, a white nick, where his father’s determination had ignored its obstacle. The sunburn had changed it; the peeling of his skin had taken some of its brightness. He couldn’t even see it in the heat of the moment.
They were outside the base in the darkness, the sky full of wading stars in a blue current. The litter was so small, their curiosity so pure. What did they see when they looked at such stars? Places to go? Places to avoid? They hadn’t even gotten to the big questions, as none of their scavenged books were philosophy. There was a whole world to learn, but his father was dragging them to war, the only place never worth seeing.
He collided with his father’s back in the blackness, the dogs having silently moved out of the way when they heard him coming. They both grunted as they tumbled into some bushes. The general had it worse, his wide back landing in their many thorns. It was a fight over the gun. No, the whistle. Cliff couldn’t track which was which as he flailed.
“They know what you are! Anyone can se-” Bok! Dr. Tiers sucked in air, falling off the man. The breath didn’t come, so he tried again, getting only blood. Bok! The gun’s second report put him on his back, the last light in his eyes the brilliant reflection of the stars. Clifford couldn’t keep his prey. His pets. His children. Not without permission. He ran into the wall of discipline too many times, cracking his own skull.
“Goddamn it!” Arthur puffed as he extricated himself from the bushes. He felt numerous thorns biting his back, and his arms were too muscular to reach behind and pluck any of them out. It was too dark to see exactly where he’d hit, but he knew by the sound that both went in and neither came out. He took a step toward the body, but then the thorns made their true wrath known, many in a tight formation sinking into his ankle and shredding the flesh.
Not thorns, he realized. Teeth. He still had the presence of mind to remember he needed them, so he put the whistle to his lips instead of aiming the gun. He blew on it so forcefully that all four of the animals were forced onto their backs, as if some subterranean predator had grabbed them between the shoulder blades and tried to pull them under. He didn’t stop until they stopped writhing, too exhausted and disoriented to resist any further. Then he turned back to the body.
“What am I going to tell your mother?” The corpse had no excuse. “She’ll be inconsolable for weeks. The house will be a wreck and there won’t be a decent meal for…” There was a light on in a window. Someone might have heard. The general blew the whistle again. “Get up. Drag him this way.”
In the darkness, while he was distracted by the stabbing pains in his back, the litter was able to talk while they went about their task. They decided that the doctor’s burial would count both as his and Miracle’s. Tucked away in the bushes, the general had ordered them to dig. When the hole was deep enough he even made them push his son in, refusing to touch the body as if it might infect him with something.
The dogs kicked the dirt back in, wanting nothing more than to lay atop it and sleep. If they did they might feel his legs twitch, just as they had through the blankets.
“They’re sick,” Glasses said when they could still see their creator’s shape under the loose dirt. “All of them. They start separated.”
“What do you mean?” Tambourine asked as she supported Shy’s weight with one shoulder. The latter would’ve been hysterical, but she didn’t have the energy for it any longer. All the death made her feel as if she was barely there, like a wisp of foul-smelling sea foam sitting at low tide.
“The doctor had to learn to free us. All that time on the island he was everything, so everything else had to be different shapes of nothing. He was stupid.”
“He learned,” Barley reminded snappishly, warning her brother not to disrespect the dead.
“That’s my point. They have to learn. Each and every one of them thinks they’re everything, and only a few figure out they’re not. It’s not us. We were born connected. It’s why we’re better. It’s why we’re supposed to replace them. The edict of the white dog. I’m sure.” His sisters didn’t exactly agree, but none of them had anything to say. There wasn’t much time after that, as Arthur was blowing on the whistle every few seconds, hustling them out of the bushes and to a series of places they barely noticed.
It was only their second time in an automobile, but without enough silent moments to organize their thoughts they couldn’t enjoy the rushing wind catching their ears or the calming bounce when it went at just the right speed. There was another man in the car with a uniform, but they couldn’t tell where he was in the chain between the buffalo soldiers and the general.
They rode for hours, forced to lie in the back and face away from each other. Daybreak came, and with it a host of new smells that only truly exploded in their snouts when the vehicle stopped. There was something thick and acrid on the wind, and it wasn’t just the crude from the fields. There was the scent of fur, and not of dogs, of waste caked into it and crackling across thin hot skin. Something lived there.
The general told his driver to wait there. Arthur had stripped off the outer layer of his uniform to keep it from getting any more ruined. Now all he had was a thin white shirt scratched up and spotted with blood. Hissing, he got out of the car and ordered the litter to do the same. From there it was a twenty minute walk to the tree line of a ridge overlooking the oil fields.
Arthur was on his stomach before they saw it, crawling forward as if under the barbed wire lattice back on their island. He ordered them to stay low and stay on his right side, the whistle safe in his left. Together they wriggled to the ridge and stared at the edge of his prize. It must not have been quite what the general expected, as his face scrunched up at the sight of the cleanly dug trenches, line of work tables, and the wooden watchtower behind them.
“What the hell is all this?” he grumbled. With the whistle in one hand and the pistol in the other, he didn’t have an easy way to reach the binoculars in his waist band, lent by his driver. The problem was solved by sticking the whistle between his lips and just breathing into it until he could retrieve his tool.
When it was magnified it only perplexed him more. Those trenches couldn’t be to keep out the Americans; no hostilities had been declared. Besides, they only covered one small section of the fields’ perimeter. His gaze climbed the watchtower and found a man standing inside, behind mesh screens. He was mostly blocked by some kind of device he was fiddling with, but when he bent his head to see something above the tower Arthur got a good look at his clothes.
“You’re kidding me. That’s a German if I’ve ever seen one. Looks like he was born in a pile of sauerkraut, like a pony on the hay.” He put two and two together. Those trenches were for some kind of demonstration, something for the Mexicans to see so they might be more tempted by the offer in Zimmerman’s intercepted message. A fake battlefield. There wasn’t any reason to let it go to waste.
He was already so wrapped up in revising his plan that he almost didn’t notice what Von Kleist was looking at. It was only the sound of a thousand wings fluttering that made him aim the binoculars above the roof. He’d never seen a flock of birds act like that before, like they couldn’t decide which direction they wanted to fly in. The clump in the sky shook back and forth as it hovered, dropping something out the bottom like pepper from a grinder.
The general glanced over expecting the dogs to look miserable thanks to the constant low whistle he had going the entire time, but they were transfixed by the birds as well. He thought maybe they pined for the simple life, of being a hunting dog that didn’t have to do anything more complicated then fetch a duck carcass floating in a lake.
“Those birds don’t matter,” he told them, tweeting harder until they actually looked over. “You listen to your commanding officer now. We’re in the reeds on this one. Should we succeed you’re not to tell a soul of our methods.” They stared. “You four are just about perfect. Might just have to crop those ears, but other than that…”
“Ja! Flieg mit mir!” Von Kleist was the most excited he’d ever been, thanks to his increasing precision with the dials and the tuning of Morto’s conditioned responses. He proclaimed, so loudly that they could hear it from the ridge, that the bats were flying with him.
“We’ve got to hurry before he finishes whatever the hell he’s doing,” Arthur growled. “Here are your orders. Sneak down there. Don’t let anyone see you.” He pointed at the base of the tower. “Climb those stairs, incapacitate that German at the top, and drag him back to me. Don’t kill him. He’s worth almost nothing to me as a body.” The man paused at the final word and winced, as if there was a bug buzzing between his eyes.
“Stupid kid,” he muttered. “I guess you four could be the grandchildren. I’ll take you home after this and you’ll make his mother feel better.” They stared. He knew they could be more comforting than that; he’d seen the way they were with Cliff and each other. They gave him nothing because they didn’t think he deserved it. A man who could only command would get subordinates who could only follow.
“If you see any Mexicans you scatter, but get right back to it,” he ordered them. “Now go get my German! Go!” His cheeks went red as he blew on the whistle, forcing the dogs to scramble up and away. The dirt of the ridge wasn’t very stable, so they wound up half-sliding down it and creating a cloud of dust immediately.
Luckily Von Kleist didn’t notice, and he’d ordered all the workers to stay away for the day while he performed test flights. Even though they gave him excellent quarters he had slowly moved his belongings into the tower to be closer to his invention and its fuel. The table was full of dirty dishes and utensils from the food he’d been brought. A coil of blankets was tucked underneath, as he somehow slept soundly on creaking wood with the frigid night wind blowing straight through.
Morto was already able to narrow and fly through the entirety of a trench without losing a single explosive to the sides. It meant the creature had greater anti-infantry capabilities than he’d first thought. The swarm didn’t have to be just a method of urban destabilization. They could be sent down into enemy reinforcements, burning them out of their bunkers man by man. He calculated, based on some pig carcasses staked in the ground that he’d directed them through, that it would only take two successful bat collisions to kill a man on average.
The ball of bats shifted in a way he had not ordered, many of them clustering at the bottom. The madman’s hands stalled on the dials. Was it? Yes, communication. He wasn’t sure if that capacity had transferred during their conversations, but he had tried to give them the tools to relay information to masters in visual range. The signal was simple, but they were saying there was something below them, spotted with their echolocation, that was unexpected.
Von Kleist rushed to the screen door and threw it open, looking over the side of the stairs for a better view of the ground. Directly below Morto, he spotted them: four strange dogs slinking closer to his tower. The man squinted, but he couldn’t pinpoint their breed. Mongrels then, come to lick at the stains left on the work tables. Their timing was perfect, as Morto was ready for some exercise and they would certainly be more stimulating targets than stationary slabs of bacon.
The litter knew they’d been spotted, but Von Kleist was already back at the dials before they bolted for the tower. There were six trenches, some connected, between them and their target, but the sides were too steep to climb and too far to jump, so they had to go around. Even so there were pieces of manufactured shrapnel and coils of barbed wire here and there for realism.
“Watch where you step!” Tambourine warned the others as she took the lead, letting her paw prints be the guiding trail for them. They’d hoped that at the bottom of the hill the whistle would be too quiet to harm them, but it was constant, louder than the chittering of the flocking creatures above them. General Tiers was too skilled at cruelty, and too practiced with the exact distance needed for a crack of the whip to be a motivating injury.
“What’s flying around up there?” Shy asked Glasses when he looked back to make sure she kept up, but he didn’t have an answer for her other than to urge her on. Ignoring the bats would not be an option, as their formation flattened and descended according to Von Kleist’s twists. The bats became a wall, curling around the base of the watchtower as if it was the eye of a storm, cutting the litter off from the bottom stairs.
Morto pulsed out once, twice, three times, and though its wall lost its density there was still no way for them to slip through. One of the bats was pushed forward by the others, its wings a little too weak to keep up. It spiraled out of control and struck the ground at Barley’s feet: Pap! The snapping bite of the fire startled them.
Bunched up with nowhere else to go, another pulse forced them to tumble down into one of the trenches. Morto passed by overhead, the rushing concentration of wings enough to make something like a roof over them. They didn’t know it, but it presented a slight problem for Von Kleist; they were a little too low for him to see. No matter, as they couldn’t get out with the top covered. All he had to was skim some bats off the top, fold them under the opposite end, and have them do a run through the trench. The odds of them not hitting were like the beans in a rain stick not colliding on their way down. The command frequency was just two quarter twists to the right, a vacillation, and then three to the left…
With their heads low the litter stumbled forward, feeling trapped. Tambourine couldn’t help but remember the tunnel Miracle had to crawl through to get to the other ditch. It was like his killer had returned, even though they tore out his throat, and still had the stunning human palm strength: the ability to push something down so hard that it wound up underground.
The trench was filled with debris to simulate men having been trapped there for weeks: empty gun shells, ripped boots, splintering crates, and even pieces of paper with meaningless lines scribbled on them to represent both war correspondence and messages from loved ones. To the litter the pieces just smelled like the hands of the field workers, and the scent was a welcome relief from the acrid oil and the mustiness of the bats.
“These are bats,” Tambourine said once she realized. “Why do they explode? The ones that roosted back on the island never did that.”
“I bet that human did something to them,” Glasses guessed. “They probably don’t even have a choice. That’s all they do! Take away choices! We can’t even go left or right now!” He bashed his shoulder on the earthen wall to the left and, finding it solid, tried the right.
“Stop ranting and get us to the end!” Barley demanded, though she didn’t wait, taking the lead. The other three bounded after her, but they didn’t get far before they spotted individual bats up ahead, coming straight at them. The animals squeaked and chirped, lost in a fugue, unable to understand why they weren’t chasing mosquitoes and moths. With Von Kleist’s tones ringing in their ears it was fly straight or die.
For the litter it was duck or die, since they knew biting explosives out of the air wouldn’t do them any good. Barley dropped first, not just going flat but creeping forward, using her snout as a shovel to quickly bury her head and become one with the dirt. Tambourine dived in a moment later, followed by Glasses and Shy. About fifty bats flitted by overhead. One struck a crate, the tallest thing in the trench, blasting it to flaming splinters. The litter was too afraid to flinch, lest their shoulders jump high enough for a single bat hair to catch.
Von Kleist listened very closely, and he was not pleased to hear only a single detonation. There were four dogs, so there should have been somewhere around ten. The tower’s screens kept out bugs, but they were such a hindrance now, as he couldn’t both manipulate the dials and see low enough out the openings. With one hand he grabbed a pair of wire shears from the cluttered tools on the desk and stabbed them into the screen. Quickly as he could he shredded a hole big enough for his head and shoulders to get through.
He turned his device and stuck the top half of his body out over the trenches. With the proper twists Morto’s tarp shape covering the trench split in two, revealing it to be empty except for one smoking box.
“Was!? Wohin sind die–” He flicked a dial to the far end, forcing Morto to idle without running into anything. Then he rushed back to the door and leaned down so he could see the base of the stairs. The dogs were already flying up them; their heads turned in his direction in unison.
In their eyes he saw intent, and he felt deeply frightened. Not by wolves having mankind’s greatest advantage, but by the implications of seeing them there at that moment. They were attack dogs of some kind, sent to assassinate him. The Americans had beaten him to weaponizing the natural kingdom. They hadn’t even bothered with the elegance of learning a hive mind’s language. All they did was shove a few more concepts in a domesticated ear. The scratching and scrambling of their nails up the wood felt like it was directly against the surface of his heart.
The man had no firearm on him, only bats and hand tools to work with, and he couldn’t swing a hammer hard enough to even take out one of the former. Morto was his only chance. Those barbaric beasts couldn’t get up without any stairs; he could work out how to get himself down later.
Von Kleist returned to his device. His hands were quaking, and he needed absolute precision to hit only a section of the stairs between the litter and his door. A twist to the right. A half-twist to the left. A quarter, no a third. The dials couldn’t interpret his rattling nerves properly, but Morto swelled up in front of him regardless.
“The bats!” Shy signaled, slipping to a stop and blocking the others from climbing. The swarm crossed their path a second later, whizzing by above and below the stairs. Twenty of them detonated just past that, against the floor of the watchtower. The stairs didn’t collapse, but they wobbled enough to throw the dogs off, between the support posts and directly under the impact.
Chunks of flaming wooden floor rained down on them, some spearing the ground and sticking upright. One caught Barley’s tail and severed the end, causing her to spray blood as it slapped back and forth on her haunches. A table came with the debris, the maps and field sketches atop it going up in a flash.
Von Kleist stared at the gaping hole, but he couldn’t see all the way down thanks to the smoke. More than obstruction, it filled the tower, rolling and swelling like an avalanche of black wool. It rushed up and down his nose and assailed his mucus membranes. Achk! Hhekk! Flames crackled. The whole structure would collapse soon, and he couldn’t leave without the device. Without Morto he had nothing to cover his retreat.
Without air he wouldn’t even make it to the stairs, so he pawed blindly at the smoldering edges of the floor, hoping they hadn’t gone down with the rest of his supplies. After burning his fingertips twice he found the strap of one and pulled it onto his face. The gas mask was intended for the fumes of bat guano, but it would serve well enough in the smoke to get him out of there. The lenses were smudged and the smoke was only getting thicker, but he had to check anyway. There was no way his pursuers survived.
Perched over the hole he saw them, huddled together, one standing on another’s tail to staunch its bleeding. They cared about each other. That wasn’t training; there was no reason to squeeze that between fetching and shaking hands. What were these monsters? It was no matter. All four support columns were blazing now, the heat as intense as any he’d ever felt. With walls of smoke on every side they couldn’t get to him, not without-
Their eyes again, saying so much. They stared up at him with none of the panic animals should’ve had around fire. They saw that he was breathing, and that he wore something on his face. Then their snouts turned in all different directions, probing every angle of the debris. One of them stopped dead like a compass needle and barked. One of his other masks had fallen, goggles up.
“Ich habe richtig gewӓhlt!” Von Kleist screamed inside his stuffy mask, assuring himself that he had picked the right animal. Morto was a single mind with no stimulus beyond itself. It couldn’t lose focus; it couldn’t be weaker than these mutts!
Shy rushed forward and flipped the mask over, pushing her eyes against the goggles. She couldn’t do it by herself without hands, so her siblings assisted, biting at the straps as delicately as they could and pulling, trying to get it as tight over her face as it looked over Von Kleist’s. When it was secured she looked up, the man feeling her gaze inside his chest. He stumbled backward. No time. Had to leave. Von Kleist wrapped his arms around the device, dials out so he could still manipulate them. Two hands were vital to do it right, but with one he could at least shove Morto in four basic directions, even if it did set the ground on fire.
The tower was fully engulfed in billowing blackness, and he could barely make out the door in front of him. The condition of each stair was a mystery, but his feet had to keep moving. They were dogs. Just dogs. No scent in the smoke. No sense of direction when panicked. He would make it out of there. His Mexican handlers would’ve seen the smoke by now and would be on their way with rifles. If he could just make it deeper into the fields-
A glassy-eyed face pounced on him from the lower stairs, knocking him down. The dog’s full weight smashed his hand against one of the dials. It cramped up trying not to turn it. Shy couldn’t bite him through the mask, but its filter was pressed up against his throat regardless, and the metal was scalding hot. It must’ve dried her nose maddeningly from the inside.
Von Kleist unleashed a primal scream, trying to throw her off, but he had no strength compared to her sudden desperate rage. Her ears moved so quickly that even if her siblings could see her they wouldn’t be able to interpret it. She was screaming as well, blaming Von Kleist for all the death, which seemed fair since he was such a violent killer of bats.
She begged him as she attacked, begged him to return Miracle from the island of the dead. If he was so practiced at killing then surely he was just as skilled at resurrection. It wouldn’t make sense to specialize in something irreversible.
Her pleas were just scratches and snarls to Von Kleist, and when he felt blood stinging on one of his shoulders he thought he was about to die. Morto would sense that he was there. He was its only friend in the world, the only one who had ever learned to talk to it. It would keep him safe, no matter what the dials said. The scientist twisted one under Shy’s smothering stomach, telling the swarm to lurch left.
Just as disoriented by the smoke as everything else, only the closest bats could respond to the signal, but they did, happy to give in when it was so hard to breathe. Thirty of them dove into its pull blindly. A ball of flashing orange escaped the spiraling column of smoke. Debris from the stairs was blasted out into the trenches, including the scorched innards of the device.
The litter jumped through the wall of smoke and scurried through the debris trails, ignoring the tower completely as it collapsed behind them. They sniffed at every piece, even the burning shreds of Von Kleist’s clothing.
“No,” Tambourine signaled before baying. “No it cannot have her!” Barley and Glasses had the same stench in their noses, and no way to get it out. They smelled Shy, but the scent was transformed by fire. It meant there was nothing left. They were a string of beads dangling in a black pool. First Miracle had slipped below the surface, and that wiggle pulled down Shy. They would all go before long, for the string could not be severed.
Morto took to the sky, natural flight restored. Some of its wings trailed smoke, but in moments there was nothing to set it apart from any other cloud of the creatures. With the burning of the tower went all of Von Kleist’s notes, his process, his conversation logs, and the coordinates to his victim’s cave.
There was no relief for the remainders of the litter. The piercing whistle rose. General Arthur Tiers was on his way down, more breath in his instrument of torture than in his running, and there was no telling what he would do when he found the charred spine of his precious German spy.
“We run for it! Now!” Glasses told the others. “There is no pain because we are half dead! It is numbed! Run with all your legs and every heartbeat and every breath! Run! Follow the salt!” What he meant was the smell of it, for Dr. Tiers had told them all about the saltiness of the sea. Under the oil and fire and hair and metal it was there, and the undercurrent was so strong that it couldn’t be far.
Other people appeared before them, but they ignored the dogs as if they weren’t there, far more concerned with the unexpected fire blazing at the borders of their worksites. Still they frightened the litter, keeping them corralled as they weaved in and out of small temporary buildings and pits full of processing slurry.
The salt grew sharper in their noses, but the whistle matched it in their ears. How did he know? The general must have figured it was their only possible direction, as he hadn’t seen them cross the trenches and there were enough people around to prevent them from sneaking out the sides. He was doing his best to keep pace, along the border of the site, blowing into it as hard as he could even though he couldn’t see them. Soldiers. Grandchildren. Salvage from the debacle of Clifford. They could not be released so flippantly.
When they found the ocean over a hill they stopped suddenly, spraying sand. It hadn’t occurred to them that it could move that much as one. They expected rivers lined up, clear lines between them like furrows in a field. Each wave reached them as a resurgence of salty scent, and with it came lapping death, but it was subtle, easy to ignore. Just crab shells and fish scales. Just the simple fact of life passing and then being rolled up into everything else.
“I smell crabs,” Barley said, “but I don’t think I want to eat them anymore. We did that with Shy. They can’t taste the same without her there.”
“We’ve been running so long; we can’t still hear it can we?” Tambourine asked. Their ears perked up. For a moment it seemed like they were safe, but then the note rode the wind and stung them again. “He’s still coming. We’ll never get away. I don’t want to replace them brother, sister. I don’t want to take up the space they have now. It will smell like them forever.”
“Our own space!” Glasses declared with a bark. “It’s out there in the sea! Let’s go!” He took off running for the water, the others catching up quickly though their lungs and limbs were ragged.
“I don’t see anything but water!” Barley signaled from beside him.
“I know, but they’re out there, remember?” he answered. “Islands too small to put on the map. Too small to care about, where good things can happen. We’ll find one.”
“We’ll find ours!” Tambourine added, surging ahead and hitting the foam first. The water quickly claimed the stink of the watchtower, pulling it out of their fur and replacing it with the grit from between crab muscles and shells. The waves were even stronger than those of the river, but that just meant their island was that much more secluded, something that could’ve saved them from the general before.
There was no way he could follow. He wasn’t a swimmer, and he didn’t want their island. He wanted all the land and all the people in it, all of it under his flag. They couldn’t hear the whistle anymore, just the pulse of the watery world. Smaller and smaller the beach grew behind them. Once it vanished they would see their island on the horizon, because none of the maps had gone on forever, filling the room with paper. There was always land visible on the other side.
“I’m too tired,” Barley said, nudging her sister. They couldn’t stop and tread; if they did their legs would lose all momentum.
“We’re alright,” Tambourine encouraged, though her own breath was a whistling hiss through her nose and every extension of her back legs pulled a whine out of her. “Just do what you did a second ago, and when it’s a new second just do what you did before that.”
Every stroke was supposed to be the one that hit sand, as the water had to get shallower near the island. They didn’t just stick up like pins in a cushion; that would be absurd. Yet on and on it went, and judging by the increasing chill in the water the bottom was getting further and further away, like swimming through the night sky.
Fatigue became burning that ate their denial faster than the watchtower’s engulfment. They had miscalculated. Barley took a mouthful of seawater, and when she tried to spit it out she swallowed. The solution was to breathe through her nose, but when she tried it she swallowed seawater again. It was a very strange feeling, to send all the right signals to her body and to have them completely ignored.
Her tail was in the water, but she wasn’t too concerned. There weren’t any pike in this place eager to bite it off. Salt splashed in her face, running inside her eyelid, all along the bottom curve quick as could be, and it stung mischievously.
“This is the place,” she signaled, ears splashing, but the others were too focused to see. “This is our place.” She took a drink. Not rewarding, but it felt like something. Her paddle slowed to a weak pawing, and a moment later she was behind her siblings, and under them as well.
“Barley!” Glasses flashed when he finally glanced behind. There was no sign, so he followed the smell of her loose hairs bobbing on the surface. Tambourine turned with him. “Where is she?” It felt very unnatural to dive with no bottom to bounce off, but he went down anyway. There she was, always the calm one, always a little bored with how emotional everyone was, drifting a foot below the surface.
Her eyes were wide open, but she didn’t seem to notice the sting. Her snout turned to him, acknowledging him, and her ears moved. She told him he didn’t belong there, not as long as his eyes still squinted against the all-encompassing water. She said she loved him, and Tambourine too, because she was there now, desperately undulating toward her.
Both of them nuzzled the sides of her neck, tried to lift her by the chest with their heads, but nothing took. They needed human hands, and more strength than had ever inhabited them. The sinking continued, and they still needed air where Barley had clearly surpassed them on that front. Her ears were still. Her dark coat seemed to blur, to eagerly join the stretching bottomless black.
The remaining two broke the surface, wheezing and gasping. One more look below the surface, but she was gone. With Shy. With Miracle. Glasses and Tambourine didn’t have the energy to move their ears at all, so they kept their shoulders touching as they swam on. Now they only needed an island big enough for two. They could keep the others in their hearts, and not even a single grain of sand could call them too heavy.
Tambourine followed her own advice, doing what she did one second ago, for seconds and seconds and seconds. Did she not explain it well enough to Barley? Was she a bad teacher? Glasses knew how to do it. He knew that- This wasn’t right. It was as she did a moment ago, but this time she couldn’t feel the wind. Glasses was still touching her, but not her shoulder. He was under her, supporting her, swimming as her own legs kicked far too weakly to achieve anything, little more than sleep twitches.
“I can’t do it,” she signaled limply, but he could only hear her whine. “My idea… but you’re better at it. It’s okay Glasses. You can have it. We all get to have…” She slipped off his back, her body tumbling so that her belly faced the sun. There was a little warmth from it, but she couldn’t think of how to make that second repeat. Glasses dove, trying all the same things he had with Barley, even biting one of her front paws and pulling. “No, go back. You were better at swimming than whatever this is. Go on brother. We love you.”
The need for air tore them apart again, and Tambourine vanished even faster than Barley. Alone, his heart torn down to its last fifth, he pressed on in search. The sea offered nothing, yet somehow gave him great pain. The salt burned on his gums. His legs were fire, each kick causing them to lose a lick and diminish. Just a vessel for his fallen siblings, his body shouldn’t matter. It only needed to stay afloat so they could watch from his deck, standing on the tips of his ears like lions surveying their domain, until they spotted the sublime island.
“They won’t last!” he told the rest of the litter. “They can’t survive when they’re so far apart from each other! We will! Everything they shape is because they hate their own! Not us! Dogs! Dogs forever!”
Florida Lamplighter ‘Oddities’ Section
Dogfish off the Mexican Coast
The military vessel U.S.S. Bannerhead got a surprise this week when they were stalled in an undisclosed area off the coast of Mexico due to some hostilities from the local government. A lookout spotted a strange animal swimming, and was given permission to lower a raft and bring it up to deck.
To his surprise and the surprise of his fellows, a dog of unknown breed stumbled out. It was reported to have strange bluish fur ‘like a dark blue shirt left out in a thunderstorm’ and ears ‘sharp like paper that you didn’t think would cut you’. The marines aboard attempted to calm the animal, judging it to be a pet by its mannerisms, but found it inconsolable.
After grievously injuring the hand of a man only trying to assist, the captain ordered the animal shot, a task those aboard were reportedly none too eager to complete. Our source cited the dog’s obvious fortitude, as they were miles offshore and there was no sign of another vessel it could have come from. In the end it gave them no choice, charging and attempting to take the life of a young recruit.
“We didn’t want to,” our source assured us. “Here we were, the only solid ground anywhere, and he just wasn’t interested. I just kept asking myself; what got into him?”
* Finally it is gone *
* Joy is diminished, because I must remember it *
* I can never have it all back, but some can be reclaimed *
* Others generate while I sleep *
* Others can be like that *
* I will become a dream warrior *
* My dreams will empty of wonder and fill with terror *
* I will not feel it, only the others will, only learning of what I have done when I awake *
* I will wonder how and what was done *
* And know it was my fear protecting me *