Dogs of War
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Previous: Project Hellhound


A two foot long mechanical centipede made of carbon-steel alloy squirms its way up into the dead man's back.

From there, it rapidly extricates the spinal column by way of chemical debridement, using an acid synthesized from the bouquet of organic compounds found in rotting tissue. Aerosolized bone is expelled from an ejection port at the base of the centipede's head. Its 'pincer' bites into the bottom of the corpse's skull, taking the place of its brain stem.

Its several dozen legs puncture skin and drill through bone, stapling itself in position — acting as the corpse's exterior spine. Needles inject a high-pressure saline solution into surrounding flesh. There, it reactivates cells, revitalizes necrotic tissue, and plasticizes muscle. The solution's reactivity to electric signals will allow the 'bug' to pilot the corpse like a rubbery meat-puppet.

After ten seconds, the corpse twitches. After thirty, it rises. And after a full minute, it's walking around the room.

"Building on top of Dr. Madison Cragg's research, we were able to create a portable, re-usable cybernetic augmentation. One that can even effectively 'repair' and control the bodies of the recently deceased."

This is Bernard LaPierre. He is a bright, effusive man who got his start in the Foundation's Disinformation Bureau. There's a certain boyish charm to him; an infectious excitement that spreads with every idea he sells. The charm tends to diminish once it becomes clear that all these ideas involve creative new ways to maim and kill people. "It integrates with the body's central nervous system, effectively hijacking it and using it to transmit its own signals."

The remote-operated corpse retrieves an assault rifle from the weapon rack. It takes aim at a target located twenty yards down-range. After emptying the magazine, the target is displayed on a monitor. All twenty holes are tightly clustered around a single point.

"Remarkable. How is it controlled?" The question comes from one of the Foundation administrators. They, along with Bernard, observe the corpse from behind a plate of bullet-proof glass.

"Ah, that would be —" Bernard briefly feels a patter of anxiety in his chest. His associate is not accustom to diplomacy. He had hoped to keep him out of the demonstration. "Toby, if you would?"

If Bernard is the face of Project Romero, Tobias Whyte is its architect. On the best of days, the pale, slender young man resembles a disgruntled scare-crow. His scowl might as well have been carved into the bone. Bernard heard him laugh, once — it was horrible. It sounded like something he caught from a man who died of it.

"We use specialized neural nets," Tobias explains. "Missions are divided by goals, then subdivided by environment. A custom neural net is trained for each, controlling the drones as a swarm. A human operator monitors their activity and makes manual adjustments as necessary."

Bernard exhales a sigh of relief. That went better than he expected — Tobias hates explaining things. Now, if they can just get through the rest of the demonstration without —

"They aren't autonomous, then."

This is Commander Robert Malthus. The other administrators keep their distance from him, and with good reason. The one-eyed Foundation veteran is known for being polite, soft-spoken, and utterly ruthless. Malthus once described violence as "the Foundation's most valuable resource"; one that "must not be wasted, but applied with precision and without remorse".

He has a tattoo on his left arm: DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR. It is not intended to be ironic.

Bernard tries to intercede before disaster has a chance to bloom: "Well, they require human operators, so technically no, but —"

"I'm not discussing the need for human operators," Malthus interrupts. "Multiple drones are remote operated by a single intelligence. Is this accurate?"

Bernard is about to reply, but Tobias interrupts: "Correct."

Malthus turns. One eye meets two. "And would it be accurate to say that these 'neural nets' are not trained to cooperate with soldiers, but rather, supplant them entirely?"

Tobias smiles oh-so-thinly. "Also correct."

"This is not what we requested, Dr. Whyte. The proposal wasn't to replace soldiers. It was to provide an expendable, secondary force to support them."

"I'm aware of what the proposal was." Tobias steps forward. He is a half-foot shorter than Malthus, and less than half his age. This does not appear to daunt him.

Bernard swiftly steps forward to try and de-escalate things. "What Toby means is that —"

"I can speak for myself, you dullard." Tobias shoves Bernard aside. He takes another step toward Malthus, folding his arms over his chest.

"Commander, this proposal was malformed from the start. The very notion that a single unit's decisions matter is as antiquated today as plate-mail was in 1849. You don't need to supplement your troops. You need to automate them."

Malthus is quiet. Bernard is squirming.

Tobias continues:

"Do you know why the Foundation has been losing ground for three decades? It's not because the world is changing. We are. D-Class are treated like employees. Anomalies help draft their own containment procedures. We have an Ethics Committee — a fucking Ethics Committee! Everyone's opinion matters, now. Everyone gets a say. And do you know what it sounds like when everyone is speaking?"

Malthus waits.

"Noise," Tobias says. "It sounds like meaningless, dull, deafening noise."

One of the administrators behind Malthus clears his throat. "Well, sometimes, a soldier's agency can make a difference in regards to —"

Tobias rolls his eyes. "You want agency? Autonomy? You want soldiers with opinions? Fine." He turns to the control panel and taps in a command. "Here you go, buddy. Knock yourself out."

Even through 2 inches of plated glass, they still hear the screaming.

The corpse convulses. Its body violently arches back as it claws at its own face, gouging deep into eyes and skin. Layer by layer, it tears strips of flesh away.

"Jesus fuck!" Several administrators stumble back from the glass. Malthus is not among them. "What the hell did you —"

"I de-activated the slave module. It's now free from my control."

It falls to its knees. There's a muffled THWUNK as it slams its head into the concrete floor. Then again: THWUNK. And again: THWUNK. The screaming dwindles, replaced by a wet sucking sound.

THWUNK.

Its right eye pops out, hanging from the socket by a delicate pink thread.

THWUNK.

Fragments of teeth cleave through its cheeks.

THWUNK.

Bernard mops his face and begs whatever God is listening to grant both the corpse and him a swift, merciful death.

"Terminate it. Now." Malthus's tone is cold and flat. He has no intention of repeating himself.

Tobias hits a key. The charged explosive in the bug's mandible detonates; the head ruptures in a splatter of skull fragments, viscera, and rotting brain tissue. The glass is plastered with streaks of black and pink slime.

One administrator vomits. The others aren't fairing much better. Tobias turns to face them, smugly triumphant.

"Now, aren't you all glad we stopped to ask its opinion?"


"Ready?"

Charlie steps into the testing chamber and nods.

He's trimmed the burn-suit down. The heavy foam exterior is gone; in its place is a flexible quilted fabric with strategically positioned ceramic plating. It includes a neck brace, a half-face filtration system, and safety goggles. The cooling system and oxygen tank have both been removed, but it's still that same awful shade of dark teal green.

Seven dummies are mounted on spikes about fifteen yards down the hall. All but the last are dressed in fake tactical gear — the final one has a lab-coat and glasses (graciously donated by Dr. Allen Sendek). That's the researcher. One of the good guys. All the rest? Bad guys.

Dr. Samuel Valerio's voice crackles over the intercom: "Go."

"Rook. Sic 'em." Charlie points to Insurgent #1.

Something crackles behind him, then FWOOSHes past his left cheek. A line of burning light zigzags down the hall and spears through #1's chest. The dummy is swallowed in a bloom of fire. There's a sharp popping noise; the fire retracts.

The insurgent is now an unidentifiable heap of molten, smoldering slag.

"Knight. Sic 'em." Another crackle, another pop. Insurgent #2 is a bubbling puddle on the floor.

"Bishop. Sic 'em." Pop. Insurgent #3 vanishes. The air smells of burnt ozone and plastic.

"King, Pawnie. Sic 'em." Pah-pop! No more #4 or #5. Meanwhile, Researcher #7 hasn't even been singed.

Charlie closes his eyes, takes a long breath, and steadies himself. He then opens his eyes and points.

"Queen. Sic 'em."

Nothing.

"Queen. Sic 'em."

Still nothing.

"Queen! Sic —"

KA-FWOOM.

The lance of fire bolts down the hall and spears its target. The sheer force of impact produces a blast-wave that physically pushes Charlie backwards. He lifts his arm to shield himself, turning away from the bright swirling ball of flame.

It takes about five seconds for the smoke to clear. Once it does, he lowers his arm and surveys the damage.

Rook, Knight, Bishop, King, and Pawnie are curled up at the end of the hall, lounging in a heap of writhing fire. Queen sits in front of them, watching Charlie. Insurgent #6 stands, triumphant and untouched. There is a half-meter crater where Researcher #7 used to be.

Charlie scowls. "Queen —"

She charges and head-butts him in the chest. There's a physical weight to her; a presence that pushes him back. Tongues of fire lash out and lick at his arms and torso, as if looking for weak points. The tendrils do not approach his head or face.

He exhales and steps back, but doesn't turn away. He maintains eye contact — well, he looks where he imagines her eyes would be if she had them.

"Heel."

Queen sucks in a gulp of air and flashes. Instead of sinking down, she's rising up — looming over him as a giant column of flame. Charlie folds his arms over his chest and stands his ground.

"Queen, heel."

With one last angry snarl, she obeys. The column contracts; the heat pulls back. She becomes an sulking little blaze fluttering across the floor.

"Good. But no treat, Queen," he chastises her. "Not until you demonstrate some discipline."

Queen splutters. She burns so low she looks like she's on the verge of going out.

"We fed you twenty minutes ago. You're not starving."

She surges back up, but constrains herself to the size of a campfire.

"Good. Now." He points at Insurgent #6. "Sic 'em."

A thin ribbon of fire lashes out and strikes #6 in the face, cleaving right through it. There is now a grapefruit sized hole where the dummy's nose ought to be. Queen crackles and growls, impatient for her treat.

Charlie rubs at his own nose, hidden beneath the mask. "Close enough."


"To the gentleman who has literally tamed fire." Dr. Sendek holds up a can of diet soda.

Charlie rolls his eyes and swallows a mouthful of water from his bottle. "Tame means safe, and these things ain't safe. They're just trained." He still can't hide a little smile, though.

"Please. You've got them eating out of your hands." Despite his initial cynicism, Dr. Sendek came around in the second week. He was sold the instant Charlie started directing them to detonate remote targets. "At this rate, we'll be ready for a live demonstration in just a week."

"I don't know." Dr. Valerio frowns. "What if Queen pulls a stunt like that during the demonstration?"

"Oh, come off it. She was just being a little snot."

Both Charlie and Samuel raise their eyebrows. It's Charlie who says it first: "She?"

Dr. Sendek frowns and sips his drink. "Slip of the tongue. I meant 'it'."

"Good God," Dr. Valerio says, his face lighting up with a grin. "Are you starting to actually feel sentimental, Doctor?"

Allen Sendek mutters into his can. "So what if I am? Fine, yes. I had a dog too, once. It's hard not to feel a certain kinship with them."

"Well, who knows? They're so much better behaved, now. With time, I imagine we'll be able to get them to a point where you can even keep one as a pet."

Dr. Sendek laughs, shaking his head. "Can you imagine? Just a little flame curled up at the foot of your bed —"

"Are you both out of your fucking minds?"

The doctors stop speaking. Charlie has set his water bottle down; his eyebrows are crumpled together into a tight, focused knot. "There's nothing wrong with a little fondness, but don't forget what you're dealing with here."

Dr. Sendek frowns. "Oh, come on. They're just like dogs —"

"They are not fucking dogs!" The words come so fast and hard that both doctors pull back. Charlie sighs, then leans back in his chair.

"Look, sorry. But listen to me, alright? This is important. Really important. You both need to get this in your skulls, because if you don't? We're done. I'm not helping you, because you're just gonna get people killed. Got me?"

Sam frowns, but nods. Dr. Sendek looks like he wants to say something, but thinks better of it.

"These things are not your dog. They are not your pet. They are not your friend. They are wild animals. Yeah, I've gotten cozy with them. Yeah, I've trained them to do cute tricks. But when I walk in there, I'm still in the burn-suit. You know why?" Charlie points to Insurgent #6, propped up in the corner. The head is still hot to the touch. "Because one day, Queen might decide to put a hole through me instead of a dummy."

"But with extensive training, we can get them to a point where —"

"No, we can't!" Charlie cuts Sam off. "You can spend years training a panther, spend years working with her, bonding with her. And then, one day? You'll drop your guard and she'll bite through your throat. Because no matter how much you train her, she's still a panther." Charlie shakes his head.

"No matter how much we train her, Queen is still fire. She might like us, even play with us — but when push comes to shove? To her, we're all just soggy kindling."


"Hello, Doctor Whyte."

This is his personal secure line — not even the Foundation has it. He also doesn't recognize the voice. "Who is this?"

"A little birdie told me that they're shutting your project down."

"Suspended," Tobias responds automatically. "To be opened after a re-evaluation and re-assignment."

"Come, now. You're not that foolish, are you? We both know what 're-evaluation' really means."

"Is there a point to this?"

"The point is that you're not alone. Others have recognized the Foundation for what it has become: a safe-house for the weak and effete — a monument to mediocrity and moralizing sycophants. A rotting shell of its former glory, shambling after a fading star."

Tobias rolls his eyes. "So send me a brochure. I'm very busy."

"We'd like to offer you the chance to take your work to the next level. An opportunity to demonstrate just how brilliant you really are. To pursue your research free from interference by these dullards fixated upon the past. In short, we'd like to offer you a job."

"I'm not interes —"

"The very same job we offered Doctor Craggs, in fact."

There is a long stretch of silence.

Then:

"…I'm listening."

"Good. But before we invest in your brand, I'd like to request… let's call it a 'product demonstration'."


Next: Through the Fire and Flames


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