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AINSWORTH, NEBRASKA, USA

[Darnell Hackworth is a shy, soft-spoken man. He and his wife run a retirement farm for the four-legged veterans of the army’s K-9 Corps. Ten years ago farms like these could be found in almost every state in the union. Now, this is the only one left.]

They never get enough credit, I think. There is that story Dax, nice little children’s book, but it’s pretty simplistic, and it’s only about one Dalmatian that helped an orphan kid find his way to safety. “Dax” wasn’t even in the military, and helping lost children was a tiny fraction of dogs’ overall contribution to the fight.

The first thing they used dogs for was triage, letting them sniff for who was infected. Most countries were just copying the Israeli method of sending people past dogs in cages. You always had to keep them in cages, otherwise they might attack the person, or each other, or even their handler. There was a lot of that, early in the war, dogs just going ballistic. It didn’t matter if they were police or military. It’s that instinct, that involuntary, almost genetic terror. Fight or flight, and those dogs were bred to fight. A lot of handlers lost hands, arms, a lot of throats got torn out. Can’t blame the dogs for it. In fact, that instinct was what the Israelis were counting on, and it probably saved millions of lives.

It was a great program, but, again, just a fraction of what dogs were truly capable of. Whereas the Israelis and, after them, a lot of other countries only tried to exploit that terror instinct, we thought we could integrate it into their regular training. And why not, we learned to do it for ourselves, and are we really that much more evolved?

It all came down to training. You had to start young; even the most disciplined, prewar veterans were hardwired berserkers. The pups born after the crisis came out of the womb literally smelling the dead. It was in the air, not enough for us to detect, but just a few molecules, an introduction on a subconscious level. That’s not to say it made all of them automatic warriors. The initial induction was the first and most important phase. You took a group of pups, a random group, or even a whole litter, put them in a room divided by a wire mesh. They’re on one side, Zack’s on the other. You didn’t have to wait long for a reaction. The first group we called Bs. They’d start whimpering or howling. They’d lost it. They were nothing like the As. Those pups would lock eyes with Zack, that was the key. They’d stand their ground, bare their teeth, and let out this low growl that said, “Back the f**k off!” They could control themselves, and that was the foundation of our program.

Now, just because they could control themselves didn’t mean that we could control them. Basic training was pretty much like the standard, prewar program. Could they handle PT? 1 Could they follow orders? Did they have the intelligence, and the discipline, to make soldiers? It was hard going, and we had a 60 percent washout rate. It wasn’t uncommon for a recruit to be badly injured, perhaps even killed. A lot of people nowadays call that inhumane, though they don’t seem to have the same sympathy for the handlers. Yeah, we had to do it, too, right alongside the dogs, right from day one of Basic, through ten more weeks of AIT. 2 It was hard training, especially the Live Enemy Exercises. You know we were the first ones to use Zack in our field training, before the infantry, before the Special Forces, even before the Zoomies at Willow Creek? It was the only way to really know if you could hack it, both as an individual and as a team.

How else could you have sent them on so many different missions? There were Lures, the kind that the Battle of Hope made famous. Pretty simple stuff; your partner hunts for Zack, then leads him into our firing line. Ks on early missions used to be fast, run in, bark, then jam it for the kill zone. Later, they got more comfortable. They learned to stay just a few feet ahead, backing away slowly, making sure they herded the maximum amount of targets. In that way, they actually called the shots.

There were also Decoys. Let’s say you were setting up a firing line but you didn’t want Zack to show up too early. Your partner would circle around the infested zone and only start barking on the far side. That worked with a lot of engagements, and it opened the door for the “Lemming” tactic.

During the Denver push, there was a tall building where a couple hundred refugees had accidentally been locked in with the infection and were now completely reanimated. Before our guys could storm the entrance, one of the Ks had his own idea to run up to the roof of a building across the street and start barking to draw Zack up onto the higher floors. It worked like a dream. The Gs made it up to the roof, saw their prey, made for him, and went spilling over the side. After Denver, Lemming went right into the playbook. Even the infantry started using it when Ks weren’t available. It wasn’t uncommon to see a grunt standing on the roof of a building, calling out to an infested building close by.

But the primary and most common mission of any K team was scouting, both SC and LRP. SC is Sweep and Clear, just attached to a regular unit, like conventional warfare. That’s where training really paid off. Not only could they sniff Zack out miles before us, but the sounds they made always told you exactly what to expect. You could tell everything you needed to know by the pitch of the growl, and the frequency of the bark. Sometimes, when silence was required, body language worked just as well. The arch of the K’s back, the raising of dander was all you needed to see. After a few missions, any competent handler, and we had no other kind, could read his partner’s every signal. Scouts finding a ghoul half submerged in mud or legless among tall grass saved a lot of lives. I can’t tell you how many times a grunt would thank us personally for spotting a concealed G that might have taken his foot off.

LRP was Long Range Patrol, when your partner would scout far beyond your lines, sometimes even traveling for days, to recon an infested area. They wore a special harness with a video uplink and GPS tracker that gave you real-time intel on the exact number and position of your targets. You could overlay Zack’s position on a preexisting map, coordinating what your partner saw with his position on the GPS. I guess, from a technical side, it was pretty amazing, real-time hard intel like we used to have before the war. The brass loved it. I didn’t; I was always too concerned with my partner. I can’t tell you how stressful that was, to be standing in some computer-filled, air-conditioned room—safe, comfortable, and totally helpless. Later harness models had radio uplinks, so a handler could relay orders or, at least, abort the mission. I never worked with them. Teams had to be trained on those from the beginning. You couldn’t go back and retrain a seasoned K. You couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. Sorry, bad joke. I heard a lot of those from the intel pukes; standing behind them as they watched the damn monitor, mentally stroking it to the wonders of their new “Data Orientation Asset.” They thought they were so witty. Real fun for us to have DOA as an acronym.

[He shakes his head.]

I just had to stand there, thumb up my ass, watching my partner’s POV as she crept through some forest, or marsh, or town. Towns and cities, that was the hardest. That was my team’s specialty. Hound Town. You ever heard of that?

The K-9 Urban Warfare School?

That’s it, a real town: Mitchell, Oregon. Sealed off, abandoned, and still filled with active Gs. Hound Town. It actually should have been called Terrytown, because most of the breeds at Mitchell were small terriers. Little cairns and Norwiches and JRs, good for rubble and narrow choke points. Personally, the hound in Hound Town suited me just fine. I worked with a dachle. They were, by far, the ultimate urban war fighters. Tough, smart, and, especially the minis, completely at home in confined spaces. In fact, that’s what they were originally bred for; “badger dog,” that’s what dachshund means in German. That’s why they had that hot dog look, so they could hunt in low, narrow badger burrows. You see how that kind of breeding already made them suited to the ducts and crawl spaces of an urban battleground. The ability to go through a pipe, an airshaft, in between walls, whatever, without losing their cool, was a major survival asset.

[We are interrupted. As if on cue, a dog limps over to Darnell’s side. She is old. Her muzzle is white, the fur on her ears and tail is worn to leather.]

[To the dog.] Hey, little miss.

[Darnell gingerly lifts her to his lap. She is small, no more than eight or nine pounds. Although she bears some resemblance to a smooth-haired, miniature dachshund, her back is shorter than the standard breed.]

[To the dog.] You doin’ okay, Maze? You feel all right? [To me.] Her full name’s Maisey, but we never used it. “Maze” was pretty fitting, don’t you think?

[With one hand he massages her back legs while with the other he rubs under her neck. She looks up at him with milky eyes. She licks his palm.]

Pure bloods were a total washout. Too neurotic, too many health problems, everything you’d expect from breeding an animal for just its aesthetic qualities. The new generation [he gestures to the mutt on his lap] was always a mix, whatever would increase both physical constitution and mental stability.

[The dog has gone to sleep. Darnell lowers his voice.]

They were tough, took a lot of training, not just individually but for working in groups on LRP missions. Long range, especially over wild terrain, was always risky. Not just from Zack, but also from feral Ks. Remember how bad they were? All those pets and strays that degenerated into killer packs. They were always a concern, usually in transition through low-infestation zones, always looking for something to eat. A lot of LRP missions were aborted in the beginning before we deployed escort dogs.

[He refers to the sleeping dog.]

She had two escorts. Pongo, who was a pit-rot mix, and Perdy…I don’t really know what Perdy was, part shepherd, part stegosaurus. I wouldn’t have let her anywhere near them if I hadn’t gone through basic with their handlers. They turned out to be first-rate escorts. Fourteen times they chased off feral packs, twice they really got into it. I watched Perdy go after this two-hundred-pound mastiff, grab its skull in her jaws, you could actually hear the crack over the harness’s surveillance mic.

The toughest part for me was making sure Maze stuck to the mission. She always wanted to fight. [Smiles down at the sleeping dachshund.] They were good escorts, always made sure she got to her target objective, waited for her, and always got her home safely. You know they even took down a few Gs in transit.

But isn’t Z flesh toxic?

Oh yeah…no, no, no, they never bit. That would have been fatal. You’d see a lot of dead Ks in the beginning of the war, just lying there, no wounds, and you knew they’d bitten infected flesh. That’s one of the reasons training was so important. They had to know how to defend themselves. Zack’s got a lot of physical advantages, but balance isn’t one of them. The bigger Ks could always hit between the shoulder blades or the small of the back, just knock them on their faces. The minis had the option of tripping, getting underfoot, or launching themselves at the knee-pit. Maze always preferred that, dropped ’em right on their backs!

[The dog stirs.]

[To Maze.] Oh, sorry, little miss. [Strokes the back of her neck.]

[To me.] By the time Zack got back up, you’d bought yourself five, maybe ten, fifteen seconds.

We had our share of casualties. Some Ks would have a fall, break a bone…If they were close to friendly forces, their handler could pick them up pretty easily, get them to safety. Most of the time they even returned to active duty.

What about the other times?

If they were too far, a Lure or an LRP…too far for rescue and too close to Zack…we petitioned for Mercy Charges, little explosive packs strapped to the harness so we could detonate them if it looked like there wasn’t any chance of rescue. We never got them. “A waste of valuable resources.” Cocksuckers. Putting a wounded soldier out of his misery was a waste but turning them into Fragmuts, now, that they’d consider!

Excuse me?

“Fragmuts.” That was the unofficial name for the program that almost, almost got the green light. Some staff a**hole’d read that the Russians had used “mine dogs” during World War II, strapped explosives to their backs and trained them to run under Nazi tanks. The only reason Ivan ended his program was the same reason we never began ours: the situation was no longer desperate enough. How f**king desperate do you have to be?

They’ll never say it, but I think what stopped them was the threat of another Eckhart incident. That really woke ’em up. You know about that, right? Sergeant Eckhart, God bless her. She was a senior handler, operated up with AGN. 3 I never met her. Her partner was pulling a Lure mission outside Little Rock, fell in a ditch, broke his leg. The swarm was only a few steps away. Eckhart grabbed a rifle, tried to go out after him. Some officer got in her face, started spouting regs and half-assed justifications. She emptied half a clip in his mouth. MPs tackled her ass, held her on the ground. She could hear everything as the dead surrounded her partner.

What happened?

They hung her, public execution, real high profile. I understand, no, I really do. Discipline was everything, rule of law, that’s all we had. But you better f**king believe there were some changes. Handlers were allowed to go after their partners, even if it meant risking their own lives. We weren’t considered assets anymore, we were half-assets. For the first time the army saw us as teams, that a dog wasn’t just a piece of machinery you could replace when “broken.” They started looking at statistics of handlers who offed themselves after losing a partner. You know we had the highest rate of suicide among any branch of the service. More than Special Forces, more than Graves Registration, even more than those sick f**ks at China Lake. 4 At Hound Town I met handlers from thirteen other countries. They all said the same thing. It didn’t matter where you were from, what your culture or background, the feelings were still the same. Who could suffer that kind of loss and come out in one piece? Anyone who could wouldn’t have made a handler in the first place. That’s what made us our own breed, that ability to bond so strongly with something that’s not even our own species. The very thing that made so many of my friends take the bullet’s way out was what made us one of the most successful outfits in the whole f**king U.S. military.

The army saw it in me that day on a stretch of deserted road somewhere in the Colorado Rockies. I’d been on foot since escaping my apartment in Atlanta, three months of running, hiding, scavenging. I had rickets, fever, I was down to ninety-six pounds. I found these two guys under a tree. They were making a fire. Behind them was this little mutt. His paws and snout were bound with shoelaces. Dried blood was caked on his face. He was just lying there, glassy-eyed, whimpering softly.

What happened?

You know, I honestly don’t remember. I must have hit one of them with my bat. They found it cracked over his shoulder. They found me on the other guy, just pounding his face in. Ninety-six pounds, half dead myself, and I beat this guy to within an inch of his life. The Guardsmen had to pull me off, cuff me to a car hulk, smack me a couple times to get me to refocus. That, I remember. One of the guys I attacked was holding his arm, the other one was just lying there bleeding. “Calm the f**k down,” the LT said, trying to question me, “What’s wrong with you? Why’d you do that to your friends?” “He’s not our friend!” the one with the broken arm yelled, “he’s f**kin’ crazy!” And all I kept saying was “Don’t hurt the dog! Don’t hurt the dog!” I remember the Guardsmen just laughed. “Jesus Christ,” one of them said looking down at the two guys. The LT nodded, then looked at me. “Buddy,” he said, “I think we got a job for you.” And that’s how I got recruited. Sometimes you find your path, sometimes it finds you.

[Darnell pets Maze. She cracks one eyelid. Her leathery tail wags.]

What happened to the dog?

I wish I could give you a Disney ending, like he became my partner or ended up saving a whole orphanage from a fire or something. They’d hit him with a rock to knock him out. Fluid built up in his ear canals. He lost all hearing in one and partial hearing in the other. But his nose still worked and he did make a pretty good ratter once I found him a home. He hunted enough vermin to keep that family fed all winter. That’s kind of a Disney ending, I guess, Disney with Mickey stew. [Laughs softly.] You wanna know something crazy? I used to hate dogs.

Really?

Despised them; dirty, smelly, slobbering germ bags that humped your leg and made the carpet smell like piss. God, I hated them. I was that guy who’d come over to your house and refuse to pet the dog. I was the guy at work who always made fun of people with dog pictures on their desk. You know that guy who’d always threaten to call Animal Control when your pooch barked at night?

[Motions to himself.]

I lived a block away from a pet store. I used to drive by it every day on my way to work, confounded by how these sentimental, socially incompetent losers could shell out so much money on oversized, barking hamsters. During the Panic, the dead started to collect around that pet shop. I don’t know where the owner was. He’d pulled down the gates but left the animals inside. I could hear them from my bedroom window. All day, all night. Just puppies, you know, a couple of weeks old. Scared little babies screaming for their mommies, for anyone, to please come and save them.

I heard them die, one by one as their water bottles ran out. The dead never got in. They were still massed outside the gate when I escaped, ran right past without stopping to look. What could I have done? I was unarmed, untrained. I couldn’t have taken care of them. I could barely take care of myself. What could I have done?…Something.

[Maze sighs in her sleep. Darnell pats her gently.]

I could have done something.