When Spot didn’t show back up after a week, I think we all pretty much figured he was dead. There are a fair number of things that can kill a fella in South Central Texas, coyotes only being the most obvious.
It’s a dangerous world out there and Spot wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box, if you take my meaning. Don’t get me wrong. He was enhanced just like the rest of us, but if brains were gunpowder, Spot didn’t have enough to blow his nose. We tried to look out for him, but he just didn’t understand that not all God’s creatures had the same sweet disposition as he did.
So it wouldn’ta been surprising if Spot had turned up dead. Sad, but not surprising.
It was surprising when he showed back up alive.
Me and the fellas were laying with our heads on our paws in one of our favorite spots–beneath the I-35 overpass. We were right across from a huge mess of trees where there are squirrels and lizards and bugs, and if you’re real lucky, the occasional wild turkey. All except for Red who was pacing back and forth while he lectured us on politics.
“The problem with humans was they didn’t live in collectives.” Red had gotten his name because he was an Irish Setter, but it turned out he was also a devout Marxist.
“Humans ain’t pack animals like us,” I said. “It’s unnatural for them to live in groups.”
“That’s Imperialist propaganda and you know it, Church. Look at China. The Israeli kibbutzes. The USSR.”
Buzz rubbed his back against the ground. He was never much for politics.
I rolled my eyes. I’m a hound-chow-something mix and thanks to the hound part I have sad eyes. It makes it hard to look sarcastic, but thanks to Red, I keep trying. “I am tired of hearing ’bout the USSR.”
“What was the first creature the Soviet space program sent up? A dog,” Red concluded triumphantly.
“And what happened to the dog?” I shot back. “Hello.”
Buzz jumped up, barking and wagging his tail so hard his whole hind end swayed back and forth.
I jumped to my feet. “What is it, Buzz?”
He must’ve been excited ’cause he tried to speak and the broken box embedded in his throat sputtered short, painful buzzes.
“Do you smell something?” asked Red.
Buzz barked once. He’s a German Shepherd and his sense of smell is better than Red’s. Not better than mine, though.
Red looked at me. “Whata you think, Church?”
I put my nose into the air.
Buzz was right. There was something different beneath the odor of dust and heat and sun-baked concrete. Something unsettling. The iron tang of blood. Blood and ….
“Spot,” I shouted and went running down the street, Buzz and Red close behind. We tore down Guadalupe barking our fool heads off, suddenly desperate to see our mate. We charged down the service road between McDonalds and the old car dealership and almost knocked him over.
He was barely standing anyway.
His fine white coat was stained black with blood, so dark I couldn’t see his spots. He limped along the road’s side, head and tail down, his left hind leg dragging uselessly behind him. Something had ripped into Spot’s leg and had nearly tore it off. Enough of the muscle had been torn away that I could see the soft, white gleam of bone.
“Spot,” said Red, his voice filled with anguish. “What happened?”
Spot slowly raised his head and stared at us with tired eyes. “Howdy, fellas,” he said and then collapsed right in the middle of the street.
We all started whining and licking his face. It was stupid, of course. None of it was going to help. We all knew it. I think even Spot knew it. But he was our mate. What the hell were we supposed to do?
Sometimes our instincts trump all the clever things you humans have done to us over the years.
Spot closed his eyes and sighed. So maybe our efforts weren’t worthless after all.
“Where ya been, Spot?” I asked.
“University,” he whispered.
The shock of the word almost made me pee right there in the middle of the street.
“You went back to the Center, eh, Comrade?” said Red.
“I saw a Charm,” Spot whispered.
“You know, Spot,” said Red, “religion is the opiate of the masses.”
“Shut up, Red,” I snarled. I licked Spot’s head and said gently, “Tell us about it, fella.”
Spot looked up at me and said in a weak voice. “You believe me, don’t you, Church? It was real. I swear.”
“Yeah, I believe you, mate,” I said.
Buzz barked once, emphatically.
Red rolled his eyes, but for once he had the good sense to stay quiet.
Did I really believe him? Shit, I don’t know. Spot’s like a puppy. Even on a good day he makes stuff up and this definitely wasn’t a good day. Aside from the leg he had a long tear in his belly. It was pretty obvious he wasn’t gonna make it.
And there are no atheists in fox holes.
“I’m cold, Church,” he whispered. He closed his eyes.
I lay next to him. Buzz lay on his other side and Red placed his paw on Spot’s back. “We’re right here, mate,” I said gently.
“Church,” he said so softly I almost couldn’t hear him.
“Yes,” I said.
“Find the Charm for me.”
“I will, Spot. I promise, okay?”
But Spot didn’t answer, didn’t stir.
We stayed with him through the night, huddled against his still form, lending our warmth to a body that had no need for it. After a time the sun came up and we rose with it and walked down the street without looking back.
Burial is a human thing. It has nothing to do with dogs.
But as we loped down the streets of San Marcos, I turned back and saw an ugly black bird with fringed wings wheeling high in the empty blue sky. I wanted to kill that damn bird. And I have to admit that feeling had nothing to do with dogs, either.
Back in the mists of prehistory when you called us in from the dark, when you lured us into the circle of light around your fire, we had no way to judge your intentions except by the feel of your hands on our flanks and the press of your bodies against us while we slept.
How could we know that you would mold and shape us like all of your precious tools? How could you have told us even if you’d wanted to?
All we had between us was the promise of touch.
I loped down Edward Gary Street trying to remember how to get back to the University. I’d spent the first couple years of my life at the Center, so you woulda thought I’d know the way, but I didn’t.
I guess I’d spent a lotta years trying to forget.
There was an old hardware store on the right, on the corner with San Antonio. It was a sagging brick building painted the color of old cream.
“Whata ya think, Buzz?” I asked. “Do we turn here?”
Buzz gave me an uncertain yowl.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I thought.”
“This is crazy, you know,” muttered Red.
I sniffed around the parking lot. All I came up with was the smell of grit and motor oil and stale piss. Nothing even a little bit useful.
“He was hurt and scared,” said Red. “What would you expect him to say?”
I didn’t answer.
Instead I glanced at my reflection in a glass door marked by a peeling credit card sticker. I’m only fifty pounds at the outside, smaller than both Red and Buzz. I have the eyes and head of a hound, complete with floppy ears, but my shoulders are powerful and my legs are long, so there’s probably some Doberman or Rottweiler in me, too. I’m mostly black with touches of rust on my legs and muzzle and a splash of white on my chest.
Your basic mutt.
And yes, I can see color. The Center modified our eyes right after they finished messing with our brains. Humans never know when to leave well enough alone.
Anyway, I nosed closer to the door until I could see past the glare into the dark store. Time had strewn cans of paint all over the place, spilling puddles of sage and eggshell and cactus yellow all over the dusty tile floor.
“Look, it’s not like I didn’t love him, too,” said Red, “But–”
I wheeled on him. “Who are you trying to convince, Comrade?”
Buzz glanced from me to Red.
Red stared straight into my eyes. “You know he was wrong. There’s no Charm down at the Center. You know that, Church. You’re too smart not to.”
I stared straight back at him. Apparently the humans hadn’t worked all the alpha-male crap out of our minds after all. “It’s not about the Charm. I promised him.”
Red dropped his head and his tail went down. “The Center is a bad place, Church. All I’m saying is–”
“I don’t care what you’re saying,” I snapped. “You can stay or you can come. But I’m going!”
Red took a couple steps back.
I turned to Buzz. “What about you?”
He let loose with a single bark.
Red shivered. “Okay, you two,” he said softly, “then tell me this. What killed Spot?”
“Coyotes, I guess,” I said, “What difference–”
“No,” snapped Red. “The wounds on his belly were made by a claw. No coyote woulda been able to cut up him up like that unless he was on his back. The angles are all wrong.”
“So he was on his back.”
“Have you ever known a pack of coyotes to let their prey up when they had it down?”
Buzz looked from Red to me and emitted two sharp barks. No.
“And did you get a look at that leg?” Red asked.
“Stop it, Red,” I growled.
“Well, I did. That leg wasn’t ripped apart with teeth. It was pulled apart. Now what kind of animal could pull apart a dog’s leg like that?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
But I saw a picture in my mind, something bracing itself on two legs while it pulled Spot apart. I shivered. What kind of animal went on two legs and had sharp enough claws to rip flesh?
A gunshot exploded to my right making me jump and setting us all to barking.
“What was that?” asked Red looking around frantically.
“The door,” I said.
Red and Buzz stopped barking and turned to look at the door. An irregular patch of sea foam stained the clear glass.
“It was just a paint can letting go in the heat,” I said.
“I don’t like this,” whined Red.
“Look,” I said as reasonably as I could manage, “you two do what you want. I don’t know if going to the Center is such a good idea. It’s probably not. But I promised Spot.” I padded down San Antonio.
Red did not.
I stopped where San Antonio crossed CM Allen and some long dormant scrap of memory stirred within me. “It’s left, isn’t it?”
Buzz didn’t wag his tail, but he gave me a single bark.
So we went left and walked past a bank and an old Dollar General.
After awhile I heard Red following along behind us.
I wasn’t being entirely honest. My determination to go to the Center wasn’t just about my loyalty to Spot.
I was getting desperate.
I had a suspicion that the box in Buzz’s throat wasn’t really broken so much as it was low on batteries. And if that were true, what had happened to Buzz would happen to Red and me sooner or later and there was nothing we could do about it.
We’re dogs. No matter how smart you made us we still don’t have hands.
Maybe Spot was wrong, but then again maybe he wasn’t. All I knew was I had to find us a Charm.
Before we lost our voices.
So we walked down that terrible road past all the stalled cars filled up with bleached bones, past the overturned SUV sporting a “Don’t Mess With Texas” sticker on the rear bumper, past the gutted and blackened houses that had once been stores or diners or homes.
We who were the last of man’s great works.
Red walked with his head bent low and his shoulders slumped as if the terrible road wouldn’t be there if he didn’t look at it. “What were they doing, do you think?” he asked in a low voice.
“Running away,” I murmured.
Buzz barked once, a jarring sound in the eerie silence.
“Didn’t seem to do them much good, though,” I said.
“Funny what people will do when they’re desperate,” muttered Red.
I gave him a sharp look, but he was looking the other way.
And after a time we came to a stone sign overgrown with wisteria. I could just make out the shadow of letters beneath the violet flowers.
South West Texas State University.
“Sure you wanna do this, Church?” Red whispered.
“No,” I said. “C’mon anyway.”
The road stank with unsettling smells. Motor oil and gasoline that had leaked out of the parade of silent vehicles, and dried, crusty blood from the humans who hadn’t stayed with their cars.
And a trace of something else: the sour tang of piss.
“We’re intruding,” Red said in a low voice.
Buzz emitted a sharp whine.
“Let’s hurry, then,” I said. I weaved through the maze of dead cars and made it over to the road’s shoulder.
I stopped next to a drainage ditch filled with stagnant water that picked up the green color of the reeds that grew up all around it. A giant stadium loomed over me with the legend, “Ho e of th Bobc ts,” emblazoned on its side.
I remembered walking here when I was still at the Center, loping merrily along the railroad tracks that ran past the stadium, peeing in the tangle of sunflowers that bordered the tracks, watching the golfers on the course that sat across from the stadium parking lot.
I turned to look at Red. “What?”
“We went past it,” he said in a low voice.
I looked at the stadium. “Yeah, you might be right.”
“I think we should double back,” said Red.
I felt something stir in the air. I raised my nose to the breeze and smelled something bad.
“Might be a good idea,” I said slowly. “Let’s do it now.”
We took off running, Buzz leading the way, weaving through the cars, muscles rippling under that khaki and black coat. Until he yipped and stopped short so quickly me an’ Red almost ran him down.
“Now why the hell did you–” I looked up and the rest of the words died in my throat.
Our path was blocked.
By a Doberman.
He was black, night black, with a dash of rust just to show you how black he really was. And he was big, easily as big as Buzz or Red and near twice as big as me. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
The worst of it was he was mean.
I could see it in the way his ears laid down flat across his skull and the way the deep growl slid out of his throat and the way his left eye was gouged out and it didn’t seem to bother him a bit.
But mostly I could see it in the way his whole body was coiled tight just like that diamondback that took a bite outa Buzz that time.
This wasn’t a dog who was scared or territorial or surprised. This wasn’t a defensive posture. This dog wanted to fight.
This dog lived to fight.
Buzz’s back was up and he emitted a low, warning growl.
“Greetings, Comrade,” said Red in a loud, cheery voice.
“Uh, Red,” I said real sotto voce-like.
“We bring greetings from the vanguard of the revolution,” said Red.
I started to back up nice and easy. “Good boy,” I said in my sweetest voice. “Nice doggie.”
Red turned toward me. “Church! What’re you doing? You know that’s offensive to enhanced–Oh!”
“Welcome to the party,” I said. Red’s the most educated dog I ever met, but sometimes I think he doesn’t have a lick of sense.
Buzz snarled, his ears flat, the skin pulled back from his yellow teeth.
Unlike the Doberman, Buzz wasn’t acting on instinct. He was stalling for time. Covering our retreat.
“Okay, fellas,” I said, “Run.”
We sprinted down the road weaving through the maze of cars and the Doberman tore after us. I started out in front, but Red and Buzz soon passed me.
I felt the Doberman’s hot breath on my hind end.
Red swerved and shot between two cars. Buzz and I followed and suddenly we were running across a field of overgrown green grass.
Ticket office, my mind said and then the beast brought me down. He grabbed me behind the head, his jaws gathering up a fold of skin, and he shook me like a rag doll.
And this time I did pee, all over him and myself, a golden stream of piss that advertised my terror to anyone who wanted to smell it.
It only seemed to excite him more.
He threw me down and pounced. His sharp canines snapped close enough I could taste the stench of his rancid breath.
And then something barreled into him and he was off me.
I struggled to my feet.
Buzz wasn’t as big as the Doberman, but he was a powerful dog in his own right and he’d used the beast’s surprise to get a good hold on his neck. Red circled them and darted in whenever there was an opening, making it impossible for the beast to concentrate on getting Buzz off his back.
I heard a jumble of angry barking and turned. Eight, ten dogs raced toward us: pit bulls, Chows, Akitas, anything big enough or mean enough to survive without human help. We had maybe a minute.
It was too late for us to run.
The Doberman had to be the alpha. Maybe if we took him down the rest of the pack would back off and we could slip away.
And then I turned and saw the Rottweiler standing behind me. The Doberman was big, but this, this thing was huge.
Maybe the Doberman wasn’t the alpha, after all.
“Guys,” I whined, “we have to run.”
Red turned to look at me. “We tried that already.”
While he was distracted, the Doberman caught him in the side of the head with his jaws and Red dropped.
And then the Rottweiler said in a deep, booming voice that sounded very much like the voice of God, “You can talk.”
My head whipped around. “You’re not feral.”
With Red down, the Doberman finally got a good grip on Buzz and flung him on the ground. And attacked.
The Rottweiler stared into my eyes for a moment and then he moved. One moment he was standing there, a block of muscle clothed in black and rust, and the next he was a blur of motion.
The Doberman saw what was coming at the last second and he laid his ears back and whined, but it wasn’t enough to save him.
The Rottweiler clamped his massive jaws on the Doberman’s neck.
I heard a sickening crunch and the Doberman suddenly stopped struggling. The Rottweiler held the Doberman limp in his jaw for a moment and then he dropped the beast on the bright green grass at the feet of the rest of the pack.
A couple members of the pack started to whine.
The Rottweiler bared teeth stained with the Doberman’s blood and emitted a growl that sounded like the engine of a small diesel truck.
The pack bolted, running for all they were worth, tails down, terrified.
The Rottweiler’s deep, booming bark followed them like the voice of judgment itself.
Red staggered to his feet. “What happened?”
“I don’t think your friend’s gonna make it,” said the Rottweiler.
“Buzz,” Red and I said together.
We ran over to him. Buzz lay on his stomach with his head down. The Doberman had torn his right ear clear off, leaving behind nothing but a bloody flap of skin. His nose was torn up so bad that every time he breathed out a little crimson bubble expanded from his left nostril.
“We need to go,” said the Rottweiler.
“That pack isn’t comin’ back any time soon,” I snapped.
“There are coyotes,” said the Rottweiler. “No doubt they heard the fight.”
As if to prove his point, a baleful call echoed through the air. It was distant.
But not too distant.
“Can you move, Buzz?” asked Red.
Buzz emitted a pair of soft barks.
I glanced back at the Rottweiler who watched impassively.
“I know it’s hard, fella,” I said, “but you’ve got to try. The coyotes are gonna be here sooner or later.”
Buzz said nothing.
“Church,” said Red softly.
“You have to get up,” I said frantically.
Buzz struggled to his feet and then collapsed. He stood just long enough for me to watch his intestines slither out of him snake-like. Just long enough for me to smell the bloody mess that was his gut.
“Oh, Buzz,” I said and I couldn’t keep the horror out of my voice.
“We have to go,” said the Rottweiler.
“We can’t just leave him here,” I cried.
“We don’t have any choice,” said Red.
“How can you, Red?” I snapped. “We can’t abandon Buzz.”
“Hey,” Red shot back, “this is your little quest, not mine.”
“Do as you like, but I won’t stay any longer,” said the Rottweiler. He turned and walked away.
Buzz whined softly.
Red bent down near Buzz’s head and licked the blood off his face. “I will never forget you, Comrade.” And then Red turned to follow the Rottweiler.
I bent down and licked Buzz’s bloodied ear. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered.
Buzz looked up at me and I could read the terror and pain in his eyes, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t curse me and he didn’t absolve me. How could he?
Time had stolen away his voice.
We ran along the river. The San Marcos wended its way through the little park located right off the Ticket Office.
When I was a puppy at the Center, the park was a charming little place where coeds wearing skimpy bikinis would spread their beach towels out on the green, green grass. It was ringed by a charming wrought-iron fence and elegant concrete steps led down to the cool river.
Now the river was nearly dry, the fence was rusty, and the steps were cracked and stained by bird crap.
And of course the coeds were long gone.
“What’s your name, Comrade?” said Red.
“I call myself ‘Demon,'” said the Rottweiler, whose deep voice seemed to roll through the air even when he spoke softly.
“Figures,” muttered Red. “It didn’t look like that was your first run in with the pack.”
“They’re not too dangerous,” said the big dog.
“Dangerous enough,” I said bitterly.
“The coyotes are worse,” said Demon.
“Tell that to Buzz.”
“The dogs still remember being fed out of a can.” He shook his head in a curiously human gesture. “They have to relearn the art of hunting.” He glanced at me. “The coyotes never forgot.”
“And what about you?” I asked sharply.
“I was bred for hunting of another sort,” he said darkly and then he would say nothing else.
The Rottweiler led us half-way across the campus to the Co-gen plant which was just down from the LBJ Student and Visitor Center and across from the LBJ parking garage and right next to the LBJ drinking fountain. The plant was built out of blond brick framed by concrete.
He led us ’round back to a heavy service door propped open with a faded, blue five-gallon bucket.
“Be careful with the bucket,” said Demon, “if you knock it out we won’t be able to get in.”
We stepped carefully over the bucket and Demon sniffed the entry way. “All clear.” He grabbed the bucket handle in his teeth and pulled it inside. The heavy door shut with a solid click.
I glanced through a doorway and saw a room full of machines. They were strange beasts, wreathed in piping and valves, the size of a light pickup, and covered with a thick layer of dust. Fossils from a bygone age.
“I didn’t know there were any other enhanced dogs left,” said Demon. “How long ago did you leave the Center?”
“I reckon it was four, five years ago.” Red looked at me. “Sound about right, Church?”
“About that,” I grumbled. I met Demon’s gaze. “How ’bout you?”
“Less than two years,” he said softly.
“Two years,” Red whispered.
“You said you were bred for a different kind of hunting,” I said.
“After they perfected the technology, they bred dogs they could use. Near the end, security was a high priority. Lots of riots and disorder. Someone even touched off a nuke over Karachi.”
“I don’t know where Karachi is,” admitted Red.
“It isn’t anywhere, anymore,” said Demon flatly. “In any event, they needed guard dogs.” He did a little play bow which looked faintly ridiculous, “And voilá.”
“So you had a Charm two years ago,” I said.
“Until he died,” said Demon. “They all died.”
“They reaped the wages of an unjust social order,” said Red.
“More like a weaponized filovirus,” said Demon, “but either way the result was the same.”
“They were killed by a plague,” I whispered.
Red shook his head. “We didn’t know.”
“None of which explains what you’re doing here,” said Demon.
Red paced back and forth nervously. “We’re going to the Center.”
Demon shivered. “The Center?” he said darkly. “There’s nothing good there.”
Red looked pointedly at me.
“We had a friend,” I said. “He saw a Charm there.”
“A Charm,” Demon whispered. His eyes narrowed. “Your name’s ‘Church.’ Are you some kind of religious fanatic?”
“No. It’s short for ‘Churchill,'” I said. “He was–”
“I know who Winston Churchill was,” Demon snapped. “He was an orator who talked his nation into making great sacrifices.”
“And he was no friend of the proletariat,” Red muttered.
“Is that what you’re here to do?” sneered Demon. “Ask us to make great sacrifices?”
Suddenly my rage over what’d happened to Buzz and Spot bubbled to the surface. “You can do whatever the hell you want,” I snarled. I turned and stalked out of the room. I pushed open the heavy door and let it slam shut behind me.
Red came out a second later. “Church, stop. Please.”
I glanced back at him.
Demon had followed him out. The Rottweiler carefully lodged the bucket in the gap between the door and the jamb.
“Why this obsession with Charms?” Red asked gently.
“Don’t you see, Red?” I asked. “We were made for them. We can’t survive without them.”
“That’s a lie,” said Demon in a low, angry voice.
I held up a paw. “No hands, Demon. You are the pinnacle of canine strength, speed, and intelligence and you can’t even open a damn door.”
The big dog glanced back at the service door.
“What is our future?” I glanced at the place Red’s balls should’ve been. “We’re certainly not going to leave the world to our children.”
“So that’s what you want,” sneered Demon. “A Charm to make your food appear and pick up your shit and scratch you behind the ears.”
“No,” I shot back, “I want a Charm to fix me when I break down.”
“What do you mean?” said Demon.
“When we first met him, Buzz could talk,” said Red softly. “He was hard to understand, but he could talk.”
I glanced at Red. So he did understand.
“I don’t know. . .” Demon sounded uncertain.
“You said before that the technology had been perfected,” I said. “I think that’s a bit optimistic.”
“They wouldn’t have made us to break down,” said Demon.
I glanced around the campus, deserted and silent.
“No,” I said sarcastically, “humans were so much wiser than that.”
I don’t really understand what you did to us to make us smart. The scientists at the Center tried to explain it to me once. Something about changing the branching structure of our neural networks. It’s hard for me to picture tree limbs growing in my head, but then we didn’t evolve from primates. We didn’t spend our childhood staring up at the tangle of tree branches in the forest canopy until it became part of who we were.
We are smart. We are tool-users.
But we cannot fix what we do not understand.
Which is why Demon, Red, and I loped toward the Center.
“What was going on in the Center when you left?” Red asked.
“They were just beginning to understand how bad the virus was going to be,” said Demon. “They were trying to modify themselves so they’d be immune to the sickness.”
“Maybe that’s what Spot saw, eh Church?” said Red. “A human who didn’t get sick.”
I grunted. I didn’t feel much like talking.
We crested a ridge and looked down into a lush forest of oaks and cedar elms and cypress. The ground was beginning to take up a thick undergrowth, reverting to wild.
As man’s things do without his attention.
Through the heavy tree cover I could just make out a sharp, artificial shape, a concrete box.
We were all silent for a long moment, remembering the endless tests, the surgeries, the terror in the middle of the night as our minds grew into something new and strange.
And then I saw something, something that made me want to put my head down and whine.
“C’mon, let’s go,” I muttered. Before I lost my nerve.
Neither Demon nor Red said anything, but they followed me as I slowly worked my down the ridge, front paws braced against the incline.
My mind turning over what I’d seen.
It’d just been a flash of movement, the dark form of a beast half-hidden behind a pecan tree and then suddenly gone. I could almost convince myself it wasn’t real, like the shadow of a nightmare at the moment of waking.
Except it went on two legs.
“Church, you smell that?” said Red in a low voice.
“Oh, he smells it,” said Demon. “Don’t you, Church?”
I said nothing. I’d been smelling the strange odor since we made it down the ridge. It was an odd smell: human, but not human.
There was the smell of sweat and skin and meat, but missing was the weird mix of deodorant and coffee and soap and gasoline and marijuana and perfume and cigarettes and toner and the thousand other smells that scream human. And in with all the odors that were missing there was something new, something I’d never smelled before.
I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like it at all.
We pushed through a tangle of bracken and suddenly it was there. A concrete box ringed by a dilapidated chain-link fence topped by concertina wire. Double glass doors revealed nothing but darkness. The legend over the doors read: “Federal Chimera Res arch Center.”
I don’t know how long we stood there without moving, without speaking, but after a time a sudden noise startled us. It was a mechanical sound. The rasp of one of man’s machines coming to life.
We looked at each other.
“Charm,” Demon whispered in wonder.
We pushed through a tear in the fence and stood in front of the glass doors.
“How do we get in, Church?” asked Red.
I didn’t have an answer for that one. I just stood there, stupidly staring at the doors.
“I’ve got it,” said Demon. He ran back to the fence, set himself, and sprinted toward the door. At the last minute he put his head down and closed his eyes.
The music of shattering glass filled the compound. I stepped through the door, careful not to brush against the jagged shards, feeling the sharp slivers of glass against the pads of my paws.
I noticed two important things right away.
The first thing was that it was cool, almost cold. I think I mighta mentioned before that Texas gets plenty hot. That day it was in the nineties with the humidity not far behind. Not the hottest day we’d ever had, but hot enough.
But the Center was cool. Air conditioned cool.
The second thing I noticed was the sour smell of death.
“Church . . .” said Red softly.
“It’s a dead rat,” I said, “or maybe a feral cat that snuck in through a ventilation duct and got stuck.
“Right,” said Demon skeptically.
It was a clumsy lie. We all knew that no Charm would’ve lived with a smell like that. So we followed the smell down one hallway and into another.
And there, bathed in the clean, clear sunlight streaming through the glass of an emergency exit door, we found her.
She was sprawled out on the floor like she was sleeping. I could tell the Charm was a woman because of the skirt and also because of the sweet trace of perfume at her wrists and neck: maybe jasmine or lavender or rose. I don’t know. I can tell a rotting jackrabbit from a rotting squirrel at a hundred yards, but I don’t get a lot of practice with flowers.
Her dark brown hair fell across her face, hiding her eyes. She wore a white lab coat (of course) and panty hose and a delicate gold chain at her neck.
But the thing I remember most clearly about her was the blood. It stained her lab coat and the tattered remnants of her chest and something that might’ve once been a silk blouse. It pooled into a lake that encircled her body.
“I guess she wasn’t killed by a virus,” Red breathed.
“Or an unjust social order,” intoned Demon.
I could feel the hair standing up on my back. “But she was killed recently. Sometime in the last few days.”
“By what?” Demon asked. “Not an animal. An animal couldn’t have gotten through the door. What could kill an adult human?”
Red looked at me and didn’t have to say it.
The same thing that killed Spot.
Something that smelled human and not-human at the same time. Something reengineered to live with the virus. Something with claws that went on two legs.
Something relearning the art of the hunt.
“Don’t you see, Demon,” I whispered. “They made something. A monster. They were trying to save themselves, but they made a monster.”
“They must’ve mixed their genes with something that was immune to the virus,” he said.
“Like a dog,” Red said dryly.
Right then we heard the click of the outside door. Like someone had pushed it open.
Red’s eyes got real wide and he laid his ears back. “Okay, Church. Happy now? Can we go?”
Demon growled low in his throat. “There’s three of us. We can take it down.”
I pricked my ears and heard the slow, careful gait of a clever hunter creeping toward us.
Red nodded at the emergency exit. “If we push that red square the door will open. It’ll never catch us.”
“It killed the Charm,” Demon snarled. “And it killed your mate. It’s an abomination before God and Man.”
“Is it?” I asked. “Man is gone and I don’t think God is watching any more.”
It all came down to me. I knew if I fled, Red would follow and Demon wouldn’t dare face the creature alone. If I fought alongside Demon, Red would follow. He’d proved his loyalty more than once today.
“It’s a monster,” said Demon. “You said so yourself.”
“Yes,” I said. “But it might also be the last human on the planet.”
“Let’s debate taxonomy outside, Comrades,” said Red urgently.
I could hear the rasp of the thing’s breathing. It was just around the corner.
Demon barked in frustration. “Church.”
“How can we destroy humanity again?” I asked.
And maybe it was my imagination, but when I said those words I thought I felt a little sizzling tickle at the back of my throat.
The beginning of a buzz.
And that little tingle, that trace of a hum in my neck, reminded me that the world I’d been born into was dead. It had died with the Charm. There was nothing I could do to bring it back.
We’d always left the decisions up to you. That was the real essence of the bargain that our two kinds struck all those thousands of years ago.
But you broke that promise.
So I stood there, holding the future in my tightly clenched jaws, wishing for the command of a human voice, the touch of a human hand.
The choice was ours, whether we wanted it or not, because you’d done the worst thing you can do to a dog.
You left us alone.
The kernel of this story came to me in the middle of the night, when my two dogs started barking their fool heads off. Some teenagers were getting rowdy in the street and the dogs were beside themselves. As I sat on the hard kitchen floor in the dark, annoyed and exhausted, trying to soothe the furriest members of my family, I had an opportunity to think about what we owe dogs. Thousands of years ago, humans and canines struck a bargain, one negotiated through the agency of touch. We owe them still. Which is why I was happy to sit there and scratch their heads until they calmed down and we could all get some sleep.