Edition 18: Ears Prick Up By Laird Barron
Rex is the pinnacle of the war dog breed. No other can match the powerful snap of his jaws or the destruction he wreaks on a battlefield. The lifelong journey of a loyal friend and his commander, and where their path takes them. A sci-fi with a delightful Roman Empire flavour. SY
My kind is swift to chase, swift to battle. My imperfect memory is long with longing for the fight. Gray and arthritic in the twilight of retirement from valorous service to the Empire, my hackles still bunch at the clink of metal on metal. My yawn is an expression of doom sublimated. I dream of chasing elk across the plains of my ancient ancestors. I dream of blizzards and ice fields that merge with the bitter stars. In my dreams, I always die.
I traveled far from home in my youth. Dad and I slugged it out with a whole platoon of black hats one night as we strolled across the tundra of the Utter North. Military commandos hired to assassinate us; every man and dog marked with the mark of a secret gang, scents masked in case of failure. Poor, stupid fools. Probably sent by General Aniochles who figured Dad was gunning for his job. Bet my bottom chew toy the sonofabitch made the call. He gave Dad dagger eyes whenever they chatted at court. Bastard smelled guilty to me and that’s what I knew. Well, I knew right.
I wasn’t a pup then. I wasn’t approaching my warranty date, either. My eyes glowed red with atomic radiation. My fangs gleamed in a grin that would have made a T. rex flinch, appropriately enough, because they named me, my whole series, after the terrible king extinct these many eons but unforgotten. Dad papered the walls of my kennel with color photos of dinos and wolves and exploding missiles to give me the right idea about how I should behave when he cried, “Sic ’em, Rex!”
Dad let slip the leash and I sicced, oh boy. The happiest of growls is the snarl of a locked jaw.
Bullets cracked and fire flashed all around us, while I lunged to and fro, hip deep in blood and mud the way dearly departed Kennel Master Callys and his best dog, Shotsum-Loathsum, taught me at the war academy. Shotsum-Loathsum was one of a kind, the failed Cerberus series, and they never again made his equal. He had two heads, one more vicious than the other! Might’ve been the meanest mutt to ever prowl the yard. Gave me this beauty scar on my muzzle, and I thank him.
I belched hellfire and howled sonic death. With each snap I sheared an armored arm here, a leg there. Those days were my destroying angel days. I could tear the tread from a tank and whip you with it. Fear pumped acid through my blood and accelerated my reactions. Fear tasted like raw meat; made me drool. Fear made me greater than my design that had attempted to render me fearless. That’s why they canceled my line too. Hard to control a thinking dog.
I leaped in front of Dad as somebody opened up on him with an antipersonnel weapon and got shot a whole bunch for my troubles. The impact knocked me flat and splintered a stand of trees into kindling.
They shouldn’t have done. Dad cursed his worst. He powered the prototype off-market rockets on his exoskeleton and gave an eye for an eye, lit a mushroom cloud where we struggled. Could have spotted us from orbit. In the end we killed the bastards and collapsed upon that slagged hunk of arctic plain, half done in ourselves. I groaned, fur shredded, titanium plates pierced and leaking the good stuff almost too fast for my cloud of nanobots to plug. Go little nanobots! My tongue lolled and I whimpered.
Dad patted my head. “Live it up, Rex. Once all the bad guys are dead, they’ll retire us to the Happy Hunting Grounds.”
Vexes me to this day that I don’t know about the Happy Grounds. The pertinent entry seems to have been purged from my data banks.
Revisit this twenty or so years down the line. I’m a grizzled veteran. The powers that be have phased out the Rex Series. Dad must truly be sentimental because he keeps me around despite an abundance of options. My joints ache, my servos grind louder. I hope nobody notices.
The train sprawls in the long grass, a ravel of silver below this bare hill. A stutter of pops and flashes and the tyrant is dead. I should be down there, jaws agape, eyes flashing fire, my howl obliterating the courage of the enemy. Instead I crouch at my master’s heel and growl in malice. Younger men and younger dogs do the dirty work.
Dad has killed the Emperor with a word. Long live the Emperor.
Dad’s men approach, mud yet green on their faces, and report that this is so. They are good soldiers. He picked them carefully, as a farmer picks the best fruit from his orchard. They present him with a basket containing the tyrant’s head—a basket of white birch in the ancient samurai custom. There are no longer samurai, but we do not forget.
Dad’s men report that the tyrant’s wife is also dead; the young, beautiful one who refused to part from him when the palace fell and his people lit great fires and shouted for his blood. Dad’s men report how they have killed the tyrant’s children, even the one who hid cleverly below the floorboards. They are good men, thorough men. He is pleased. I see it in the relaxing of his shoulders, smell it in his scent. I smell sadness too—he and the Emperor were pack, once.
Our new Emperor Trajan is jubilant. He commends our valor when Dad calls on the red phone to explain that the garden has been weeded. The new Emperor asks Dad to fetch the tyrant’s banner to Prime. Trajan will spread it before the door of his toilet. There will be celebrations; we are invited. I will receive a medal of valor and a juicy ox bone. I have a cabinet of medals. I am the most decorated canine soldier in the history of the Empire.
Even as they speak on the red phone it rains, and through the rain I watch the tyrant’s banner curl with flames. No matter. Dad knows of a three-fingered tailor in New Naples who will make us another.
Mom is happy when we finally return to our home by the white cliffs. She feeds Dad grapes from the vineyard and cheese from the goat. She bathes him from a ceremonial basin. They retire behind a bamboo screen to mate.
In the morning I water the big tree near the main gate and rest there for a while. The ocean is off to my left, dull beneath the cliffs and patterned with hungry birds. The tree is to my right, like me a piece of old metal—scarred and stained, white-puckered grooves radiating from the axis of its foundation. Such low, dark trees dot the ragged coast, but I am informed they do not spring native from this dirt. I wonder if they remember their birthgrounds by some impulse caught in the plexus of heartwood and cambial glue. When the winds rush off the water my tree seems to nod at the sky. It murmurs.
Marcello arrives in his glider when the sun grows fat. My tail wags with a crazy mind of its own. Marcello is black as pitch and always smells of violence, which I adore. His eyes are rivets in a cold bulk. Of all loyal hounds in Dad’s stable, he is dominant. Oh, I could rend him, if growl came to snap, for I am Rex, greatest of my kind. Nonetheless, what a battle that would be!
My brains are superior to most canines. Nonetheless, the primitive beast within me isn’t much for long-term planning. His stratagems are Dad’s long knives. Marcy (Dad calls him that when it’s just the boys) is a ruthless man. This is his chief virtue, in my humble opinion—current events call for ruthlessness. It is the time of dog-eat-dog.
They recline near the scarred tree and discuss the situation in Prime. The ocean is smooth today and Prime is an invisible place where people from books compete for favors. These folk caper at court—clowns, buffoons, trained seals in bright clothes.
Dad, too, competed once. Oh yes.
The old Emperor loved him well. The previous ministers were less charmed by Dad’s heroics in the war against the barbarians. General Aniochles, Dad’s bitterest rival, had openly warned the old Emperor about the dangers of popular war heroes with the keys to the Legion. Aniochles was a foreigner—some speculate that barbarian water tainted his veins, and so the old Emperor chose to turn a deaf ear. Later, Aniochles got torn apart by the mob which stormed the palace during the glorious revolution. I wish we had found his body so I could have pissed upon it.
Marcello says that Prime is a safer place now. The partisans of the old Emperor have been rooted out and shriven. More importantly, the partisans of the old General have been dealt their rewards. During the plans for the Grand Transition Dad had feared a Legion divided. To be sure, isolated centurions chafe in their barracks, yet this is nothing to dread. They need a head as a coin needs its head. Dad will more than suffice.
Marcello is confident all wounds will heal in short order; all petty complaints placed aside. He and Dad drink wine and congratulate themselves on a job well done. I lie at their feet and scheme to the best of my doggy ability. Unlike them, I am nervous of complacency. The new regime requires something to cement its unity. War dogs are not welcome in the parlor when the clamor of battle has subsided. Perhaps the conquered barbarians will test their chains and give us cause to rebuke them. If not the rebellious woodfolk, there is always a tribe rattling its shields. I think then of the pallid dwellers of Europa II, their vacuous demeanors and squirming mouths. We have not fired our rockets at the moon for too long. Dad should spread this message to those who command the Emperor’s ear. Nothing serves to bury present troubles so well as fresh blood.
Marcello asks when Dad means to return to the capital. Dad says that he shall return when the Emperor summons him. Until then he will enjoy the restful ministrations of his lovely wife, and pray red-handed Mars permits a soldier’s ease. Marcello laughs and glides away on a tradewind.
Dad and I watch him go. A crow regards us from the branches.
Twenty-two months since we discrowned the tyrant and installed his noble cousin Trajan. Dad is anxious that none of the new Emperor’s promises have come to fruition. My master is a soldier’s soldier and he plays the role. Part of that role is keeping one’s mouth shut in public while complaining to one’s dog in private.
Dad’s duties as Consulate General carry him abroad. He has observed firsthand a growing discontent among the Legion ranks and the populace we protect.
We visit Prime at the wane of each moon and find her streets equally restless. Dad reports the news from fortresses along the rim of the empire. The Emperor’s day-to-day security is overseen by Artificer Lyth and Commander Marcello. It is Lyth who frequently greets us in the Emperor’s name. He is spindly and terrible. I do not enjoy the Grand Artificer’s horrifying aspect, or the stench of malignance that seeps from the joints of his armor. Much occurs beyond the view of our esteemed leaders. The denizens of Europa II test our borders with increasing temerity. The jungles of Pash rustle with the activity of barbarian scouts. There are bombings. The Legion awaits word from Prime. No word is given. Dad hearkens to whispers of discontent and his lips thin into a grim line I’ve seen too often of late.
Emperor Trajan is a wise ruler; he vows to restore Prime to her former majesty. He vows to repeal the heaviest taxes, to rekindle our aggression toward the barbarians and their allies. He vows to return the teeth of our empire. Yet his days are full of courtly doings unrelated to these pledges. His tastes are…curious. He craves exotic entertainment at court. The silken charms of Far Western nymphs consume his attention. He is enthralled by the ecstatic powders of the southern realms. Captive barbarian princes twist in wicker cages above slow steam, and their misery quirks his lips with amusement.
When Dad is finally granted a personal audience, he speaks to his eminence of concerns regarding the Legion and of our far-flung provinces. The Emperor nods his blond head and promises to address the Senate. His glassy eye does not shift from the pale forms wilting in their prisons. Our time is always short—Artificer Lyth hovers near, a monstrous cleg in red and black. He swoops to bleed the Emperor—the woodland savages carry many plagues, many plagues, indeed!—and for this, privacy is essential.
Dad takes leave, questions unresolved. I give the Artificer a baleful glare in passing.
Dad customarily sups with Marcello and dour Iade and commends them to protect our Emperor from harm. His lieutenants assure Dad that the capital is proofed against the machinations of evildoers. In the end we fly from Prime, Dad smelling of uneasy thoughts. He should be pleased, except that he is too much like me in that regard. His instincts are powerful and they whisper to him of danger. He groans in his sleep, reliving battles, or anticipating new ones.
Consulate General is an exalted post. A wealthy post. With Trajan upon the throne, it proves fantastically more so. Trajan lives in dread of assassins. The Legion wants for nothing. Our home is splendorous. Our servants are many. Dad’s lands stretch from deep into fertile plains and shaded hills down the coast. The trees are heavy with fruit; cattle mill in green tracts. Horses stream across wide grasses. He no longer rides them; his back hurts too much for the saddle. It pleases him to watch them gallop beneath puffed clouds as I nip at their heels.
Adjoining our home is a massive structure, low-beamed and windowless. A storehouse for Dad’s greatest prizes. He owns several vehicles—skimmers, racers, bi-spindle gliders, and a light war chariot. This last trifle is prohibited for non-military use. I too am government property. General Aniochles had often raised this point to the Emperor—when not rending the enemies of the Empire, my place was a barracks kennel, not serving as a lap dog to a commander. Yes, well fuck him too. Rank hath its privileges. I’m a bit long in the tooth. Snoozing on the plantation appeals to me more than I would’ve guessed back in the days I chewed iron and pissed fire.
In the concrete floor is a concealed trap that leads to a vault where Dad stores more interesting possessions. Here are his favorite toys—the blades and guns and armor of warfare. He keeps them in fine repair, each instrument polished and whetted in anticipation of grim eventualities. We do not enter the vault this day, although he glances at it with a far-eyed expression I know well. His scent causes me to sniff for hidden danger, yet I sense no enemies lurking. The odor I whiff from his pores is tinted with the same metal as his thrashing nightmares.
Today he does not wish to slaughter a barbarian regiment. He only wishes to drive a pleasure chariot. Before the barbarian troubles he amassed a fortune driving similar vehicles in races at the Hippodrome. Dangerous business, that. Perhaps more dangerous than being a war hero and a politician. He still likes to drive. So we go. I get stuffed into the copilot slot, webbed in and protected by a canine helm Artificer Trang devised before he took the long stroll into night. Artificer Trang had looked and smelled so much better than Lyth. I mourn the dead man as the helm snicks into place.
It is a warm, listless day. From the state-sponsored radiocast—last week’s news. An opera by Laconte. String music. Long static-filled pauses. Nothing about the garrison bombing in New Portugal. Nothing about the Coliseum riot. Marcello sends him a terse message: General, your presence is not required. The dissidents are quelled. Dad does not enjoy this news. His jaw bunches, his hands clench. The people are increasingly restless. The stability of the Empire is paramount. More and more, she is anything but stable. Even a dog can see this.
A narrow road cuts through the white cliffs. It is neglected; the pavement is cracked. There are craters and switchbacks, and hairpin turns. Sometimes the road drops to sea level where rocks lie scattered, ready teeth. We flit past them, the sleek chariot whirring and trembling as it slices right to left with the precision of a stitching machine.
It is not the rocks or the turns that undoes him. A stag wandering from its field is the mechanism of our destruction. It appears in the road, a hoary brute with thick horns lowered. A gray wall. Why does Dad swerve? I do not know. The chariot would cut the beast down without issue. Nor is it fear that rules him—he has crushed many a foe’s glider beneath his own, shorn valiant pilots from their cockpits with a scything sweep of his wing and exulted in the flames and the blood.
Yet, he turns aside. His iron hands are betrayed by a signal, an errant signal that I, with my superior senses almost apprehend in its passage. I smell guilt and awe. The chariot turns as it is commanded to turn and falls among the sharp rocks. The sky and the ocean grapple, trading positions. I recall that the white stag is Dad’s personal standard, the standard of his noble lineage. I should make something of this, yet don’t. Not in this moment. Terror masters me as we crash and burn.
Somewhere dead Aniochles chuckles. Difficult to hear him above the clatter of many shields thrown down at once, my despairing howl…
You are a destroyer, Rex.
It is true, what this ghost voice says. This accusing voice that shivers from wrapping fog. I am now, and have ever been, a destroyer of men. It is my little niche. Some dogs fetch, some dogs preen. I crunch bones in my teeth and tear down the works of our enemies. Such work is noble. Some things must be torn down that more important virtues may thrive. I am needed as a wrecking bar is needed. There is no shame.
Protector of tyrants! The phantom hisses. Like master, like dog! Lapdog, sycophant!
The fog lifts and I see my beloved mentor, the Kennel Master Callys, alive in his armor. One of the few men I have ever feared. He is a brick furnace surrounded by soft-mouthed puppies in white tunics. He reeks of blood. The pups shine, eager for his instruction.
Callys teaches us there is nothing complicated about killing a dog or a man. The mechanics are quite straightforward. Some men die easily, other men are hard to kill. Dogs? Dogs are only as good as the hand on the leash. There is no mystery. To reflect upon the destruction of another man is the difficult portion. Instinct has taught us to bow in deference to the sacred pact that has existed since the era of cave dwellers.
First, we must never regard the enemy as men—they are objectives given flesh. Next, Callys advises us to wipe their faces from our minds. We must never look back. This applies to humans and dogs alike. It is the deepest secret to success in the Legion. Then he fits me with my first war collar and sends me with my pack-mates to dim Pash to do the Emperor’s work.
He is correct, my grizzled Callys. Men are easy to kill.
Common folk tell superstitious tales about the barbarians of Pash. The woodsmen are savages who fight with the vigor of ten centurions. They lay horrible traps and eat the flesh of our poor fighting boys. I find that the barbarian squeal and shit of their death throes are much the same as my pack brothers and the hastati who accompany us. It is almost a disappointment.
You are a hound of hell. Your master, your “father,” is a traitorous mutt. He is the real cur.
I am positive the barbarians who looked into my grinning face thought me a terror. The Legion is a juggernaut built to destroy the Empire’s foes. Nothing else. In the dim jungle my purpose is the juggernaut’s terrible purpose, my Dad’s purpose. If that makes me a fiend, then yes, I am a fiend. Gladly.
The fog lowers and bells clang, first at distance, now close and all around. War bells, no mistake. My pulse explodes, but the angry bells soon fade. My vision shifts as the fog boils, closing, and then receding. The old Emperor awaits my master and I upon the Capitol steps. He is a regal man; a king’s king as his title indicates. He loves my master as a son, better than his own sons. My master, my human father, loves him right back. The old Emperor is called tyrant in some quarters. He does not trust in the greatness of Prime. His edicts are harsh. He expects every citizen to weigh his wealth and strength against the welfare of the Empire. The Empire is besieged from without and from within and the old Emperor believes a storm shall someday blow down the towers his ancestors have raised. Yes, the empire has many enemies. The old Emperor has more. Woe unto him. He hugs Dad to his breast. Dad looks away in shame, the way I hang my head after ruining the carpet.
What have you and your master done, hellhound?
I know Dad has come to resent this new, young Emperor. He regrets elevating lofty Trajan, he is disgusted at the debaucheries at court. He broods over the malaise abroad. A storm upon the horizon. The stag regards him with contempt and he turns my chariot toward the ocean.
What has my father done? I do not know. My poor overworked positronic brain is a crude marvel. It can only take me so far.
A spiked collar makes an excellent close-quarters weapon. Drive in with the spikes, rip out with the fangs! It is among Callys’ favorite exhortations.
The enemy soldier, a barbarian mastiff smeared in red ochre, does both of these things to me. There is a skirmish to end all skirmishes. Chaos and fire. Men squirming in separate pieces; chattering reports of spindles and malspheres. Dogs whining their last. The mastiff whips me with his claws; his spikes tear my neck, his cracked fangs slash the flesh of my belly. I roll away and wheel. My spurting blood forms a circle in the dirt. I charge him through the sudden mud. He sinks his teeth deep into my shoulder and braces for the killing twist. It is too late for him though. My jaws snap shut upon his neck, my diamond-sharp jaws, and there is no escape from them…Then Dad is there with his gladius blazing a nova and he cuts the mastiff in two. Dad is slathered in crimson. His left arm dangles, shattered. His body is full of holes. He laughs.
So I tell you, this small accident by the water is of no consequence.
Reports are we walked away from the wreckage of the chariot. I do not remember anything except darkness and the distant roar of my ancestors on the plain. I remember gauze curtains, leeches hovering in their robes. Mom weeps. She has seen Dad in the yard, gore from toe to crown, clothes rent from his body. Raving of battles long past. He carried me, a bloodied lump of torn fur and exposed bone. Mom thinks me dead while I dream of chasing the horses across endless fields toward the purple sea. The leeches also think me a goner; my injuries are grave. Ah, they don’t know the trouble I’ve seen. I descend from the supreme canine bloodline. I am augmented with weaponry. I am built to endure.
Only I know that I have seen much worse. I do not say this when I open my eyes and see her nearby, mopping Dad’s brow. My vocalizer seems to have been damaged in the crackup. I whine and sleep again.
Dad is a famous man; our accident is reported during numerous newscasts. Sabotage? The broadcasters are titillated. Flowers arrive from all corners of the empire. The Praetorian Guard establishes a cordon around the hospital. Citizens camp in the fields, hoping for a glimpse. It worries me to consider that some of them do not come bearing gifts or fond wishes. Yes, Dad is a famous man, but also a hated one if you ask the right people.
The days roll into weeks.
Faithful Mom keeps vigil, only leaving for the brief visits by Marcello, Iades, and Dad’s other confidants. Marcello brings whiskey and cigarettes. The leeches wisely ignore these transactions.
The news from the capital isn’t good. Three more riots in Prime. Food shortages are raising eyebrows among the Senate. However, the senators do not seem concerned that we have lost a garrison near the Pash border. A few centurions more or less, eh fellows? These days the state radio does not cover foreign events at all. Football scores, celebrity gossip, music. The masses are surely as drugged as our fine Emperor.
I dream of the wreck. I dream of hunting. In the hunting dreams, the stag emerges from cover. He pauses to regard me, his mortal enemy. My tribe has stalked his kind since time immemorial. That my human father bears the stag as his heraldry seems a paradox, and one I am too weary to sort.
The stag’s antlers catch the light and gleam like a crown of blades. His eyes are familiar. He tosses his shaggy head and ambles out onto the plain. The dream is a jumble of life and fantasy—I am injured from the chariot crash, and bleeding heavily, yet I follow my prey. Stubbornness is a virtue among dogs. The stag recedes to a blot and vanishes. I track his prints in the dirt. I snuffle his musk among the blades of the grass. I wander through a copse of trees and piss against one. The stag has escaped. Behind me, the plain is golden gulf edged in darkness.
I begin to retrace my steps back to the house. At first, this isn’t difficult since I’ve left a trail of blood gleaming to light the way. A flake of snow loops around and catches on my tongue. Then a few more, and then many more until a blizzard erases the world and me with it. I awaken, filled with a terrible yearning that I do not understand.
We grow strong, Dad and I, although the leeches suggest Dad’s proud visage shall not remind anyone of Adonis. A mild joke assayed by the chief surgeon who is too old to fear execution. Dad was never what you might consider handsome. Now he is a trifle worse. Beauty lines, the legionnaires call such scars.
Something has changed in my master. His smell has altered. He smells of sadness and of determination and regret. I know trouble is on the way. He smells of fire and anger and the desperate foolishness of youth.
Mom comforts us. We walk in the hospital garden. She is radiant in her fear. Her black hair, her carmine lips! Her eyes blaze with mysteries. I am entranced. She and Dad talk of small things and though they are only small things, I cannot imagine how I have always overlooked her cleverness. I am sent to guard the front door. They mate there in the garden, beneath an olive tree. I hope he doesn’t kill himself in the doing.
Mom has wanted a son. I wonder if now she shall receive her desire. Dad has muttered of it some nights when he’d drunk overmuch and fallen prey to sentiment.
After Mom departs with her handmaidens and bodyguards, Dad mutters to me, “May it please the gods my latest heroics grant her a child as I have failed her as a husband these long years.”
In the morning she will find his sick bed empty. She will search while the servants lament. We will not be discovered.
An enclave nestles high in the mountains that shield the Empire from western aggressors. The name of the enclave is unimportant. What is important is that the progeny of various paranoid emperors have been sequestered here among bald monks and bearded goats. Few have heard of this enclave. Fewer know where it stands.
Dad is one of the latter and he lands his glider in a copse of paper birch. The walk is brief—we do not wish to run far if running becomes necessary. Because the air is chill he wraps a cloak about himself. Because he does not care to be recognized he wears a hood. In one hand he carries a lens—it has a nose for human chemicals. In the other hand he carries a rod. I alter my coat to blend with the terrain and lurk near his flank. I am on high alert.
It is late afternoon. The bark and leaves of the trees are changing colors. We pick our way through mossy boulders and across tiny streams. Soon, we spy the ancient stone battlement. Left seems a good direction, so we circle that way and mount a low rise screened by more birch and a few pines. A squatty monk in a brown cassock reclines among fallen leaves. Doubtless a lethal guardian. His job appears most boring. Dad whistles to me the whistle of a gyrfalcon. I greet the monk in Praetorian fashion and move on, licking my chops. At the summit there is a rocky clearing with a fine view of distant reaches. The world below is twilight damp.
The sensor blinks and purrs in Dad’s hand.
Just ahead, a pair of children play at rough and tumble. The children cease their sport and observe our approach with sharp interest. Doubtless, they have been taught to fear strangers. The monks are not fools and know what the Emperor expects of them. Fear, however, is a difficult thing to teach. It is better learned from bitter experience and at unpleasant cost.
Dad is hardly fearsome with those bent shoulders, the exaggerated limp. As for me, I’m huge enough to scare anybody with sense, but I grin a friendly grin and wag my tail. Good dog! Dad lowers the hood and bares an avuncular smile. His scars do not alarm, they attract a natural curiosity, and the boys are his. One strokes my fur, surely wistful for the pets he left in his household. I’m the only domesticated animal around for leagues.
The boys dress simply, yet comport themselves as befits princelings. Neither has met his father, Emperor Trajan. Nonetheless, they are proud little bastards, with hints of requisite cruelty in the crinkle of their eyes. Their teeth are white as young carnivores. I have seen their like in my puppyhood kennels. Brutes in training.
Beyond them, the rearward quarter of the knoll has eroded like a cavity in a molar. Blue light fills the ravine and hides its foot. “A bad place to make sport,” Dad says. “The monks would not approve.” The boys laugh at his timidity. The elder quips that life in the palace has far deeper pitfalls.
Dad gazes out over the darkening land where the lights of Prime should soon be. And then, casually, he asks which of them shall be master when his illustrious father relinquishes the throne.
They are close enough in age that there is room for doubt, and thus each makes his answer. He nods sagely. And if master of Prime, how would they govern her territories? Again each makes his answer and as they answer I watch their faces and think my own thoughts. They can’t smell the iron igniting in Dad’s sweat. They cannot smell his smell that is incipient destruction. I hear the creak of his fingers tightening on the weapon at his belt.
Oh, I am certain of what he sees.
In a while he sends the younger boy down to the monastery—the supper bell rings faintly. He keeps the elder at his side—Dad claims he is feeble and will require the lad’s muscle. But first, Dad asks him if he knows his brother well. Indeed, the boy does. Does he suppose his brother would truly break the Praetorian Guard? The boy is contemptuous—of course his weakling brother would do such a stupid thing! The younger son lacks the sense to recognize how the powerful must be warded from the madness of their subjects.
Ah, yet don’t ceaseless favors to the Praetorian Guard weaken the Legion and therefore the citizens? These are difficult times, are they not?
The boy sneers. If the flock must be sheared to clothe the shepherd, so be it. Dad smiles at his conviction and ask if he has ever seen proud Prime. No? Then come now and look across the chasm where night draws down. Stand here and look and see her lights as they spark and catch…
The boy does this. They stand there, Dad’s iron hand loosely upon the boy’s fragile shoulder. I whine softly, my tail swishing back and forth in the tough grass. Darkness falls. It is far to the bottom of the ravine.
Dad gets cute and tries to ditch me. He’s sly, tossing a treat into the bushes as he makes for the glider. I’m faster and beat him to the vehicle. He grows exasperated. This may be a suicide mission. My growl tells him, no shit, General. I figured that for myself after we murdered that royal brat.
He commands me to lope home to Mom and guard her. The distance is vast. My mighty dog heart and cyborg parts will see me through. I plant my haunches in the copilot seat and snap at his hand when he attempts to drag me out. Eventually he relents, swearing vilely at my disobedience while smiling a secret smile.
“All right, stupid dog. Let’s get you metal, at least.” I consent to an ancient war harness. The harness is another accessory forged by the old master artificer, Trang, who was peerless in matters of defense. He designed it for the Max Series canines. Such brutes! Such killers! Perhaps less adaptable and handsome than myself, you had to give them credit for ferocity. Scoured with sand and blasted with sonics, I still whiff the taint of gore and death sweat embedded in the harness mesh. My eyes roll back, white, and then forward, black. I’m not a lapdog anymore. I am, as the dead philosopher said, a destroyer of worlds. Small worlds, but worlds.
Dad’s glider was once a racing machine. It shreds the wind. We beat rosy dawn to the capital. There are a thousand doors into the palace and all one thousand are guarded by his gold-armored Praetorians. We enter by the thousand and first.
Moving within the mazeworks, I speculate as to whether the monks back on their mountain have raised an alarm. Yes. Although it may be delayed while the monks seek a method to extract themselves from an untenable position. Trajan’s displeasure is invariably fatal.
This alarm being a given, has the news broadened to include a notice against Dad and me? Yes again. Marcello would add two and two and be first to give the order. Dad trained him well. He is clockwork, dire Marcello. His loves and hates are suits he folds away as the occasion warrants. His duty shall prevail against all else. There can be no doubt that if he spies us lurking about these halls he will kill us if he can. I drool at the idea of this confrontation
Iades? Iades is loyal to Dad. He is also a Praetorian. He will do as Marcello does. Dad is the most loyal of us all—he could’ve divided the Legion and loosed his partisans against the Emperor, perhaps even set himself upon the throne. Instead, he’s chosen the lonely path of the assassin, the man who will pay to liberate the country from an error in judgment with his own life.
Dad may not desire the death of his men, although I would happily gut them one and all at this point. My ire is stoked. We travel by secret ways and come at last to the inner sanctum of our dear Emperor. The way Dad chooses is arduous—it involves no small measure of slithering through vents and clambering over shelves with precipitous drops yawning at our toes. Dad’s wounds pain him; his muscles labor. I worry he will fail. Yet he is tough, my old man. He persists against and my focus narrows to ward him from a sudden fall.
Artificer Lyth nearly has us because of this. He is waiting in the shadowy heights of an arch and descends with horrible alacrity. The pleasure upon his unmasked visage is manifestly unsettling. Artificer Lyth detests us as much as we detest him. He does not summon the Guard. He radiates a craving for homicidal glory. The Artificer thinks us relics easily dispatched by his dreadful craft.
Dad kneels near a vertical drop into a bottomless crevice. His arms shake with the stress of the climb. He snatches for his gladius. Too slowly, alas. Thankfully, my reflexes prevail. I spy the enemy and charge, roaring. Magnetized plasma jets forth and shrouds the enemy in a corona of fire.
To my chagrin, his shielding absorbs the worst I can dish. I suppose I should count myself fortunate he doesn’t manage to reflect the sluice back upon Dad and me. That would be embarrassing and fatal.
The Artificer bats smoking cinders from his hair, rubbery mouth slack with malice. A drop of blood gathers in his left nostril. The hem of his robe wisps smoke, charred along the panther trim. He flings elongated arms outward and makes claws of his fingers. Around me the air is rent with screeches and flickers of lethal geometry. Cracks race along the ageless granite pillars. Little fires slither, rootless. Most dogs would perish right here—smashed and burned to founding atoms from the grasp of Lyth’s telekinetic machinery.
Not me. I am Rex, left paw to the Consulate General, and greatest of my kind. Artificer Lyth isn’t the only one who can play this game. Trang embedded a network of kinetic shields and dampers into my war harness to counter precisely this sort of emergency. The harness is a powerful artifact, proof versus any detonation short of a tactical nuke, according to the literature. It’s a near thing, regardless. My foe’s malevolent gesture shorts the circuit and I bellow in agony as the harness melts and fuses into my hide. Consciousness contracts to a keyhole. Rationality is obliterated. However, I am spared and my foe is screwed.
Artificer Lyth cries in distress when his attack fails. He attempts to scuttle back up to his nesting place, and he is quick, but I am on him and my fangs are at his neck. And that is the end for Artificer Lyth. I hobble back to Dad and drop the Artificer’s gaping skull at his feet. Dad chuckles and gently scratches my ears like old times. His jovial camaraderie belies a deep concern for my condition. I am brave and try not to signal the graveness of my injuries or how much I suffer. We must hurry, for the commotion will soon draw the attention of the Guard and loose ends yet dangle.
We limp and stagger and redouble our pace through these secret ways.
Emperor Trajan reclines within his vasty solar. Dad has chosen this moment well, for the Emperor is inclined to sleep late after titanic debaucheries. Our leader is alone save for drugged slaves and a handful of Praetorian guards—only select favorites are permitted access to his person at these revelries. Sadly, these dregs are mixed with two or three men who have served honorably. There is nothing for it, however. I lick my wounds as Dad makes his preparations to seal our fates as traitors or liberating heroes.
Dad has brought several terrible weapons, which he activates from the safety of a hidden nook. Soldiers are obliterated where they stand and soon the Emperor has been stripped of his final layer of security. Dad takes a moment to ensure the great obsidiron doors are sealed. It will require technicians with plasma torches many minutes to breach them.
To slay Trajan would be simple. His eyes are glass, he snores. He is unaware of the carnage at his feet; he is oblivious to Dad’s looming presence. His slaves suffer from a similar malaise, sprawled about his dais, twitching with visions of erstwhile heroics.
Yes, to slay Trajan would require a mere gesture. Dad must only slide the knife between his ribs. Yet, he stays his hand and Trajan snores on. A dull gonging begins against the massive portals. I imagine the chaos beyond, the panic as the Guard is summoned to breach these gates.
So how now? Dad is vexed and bemused. I cannot help him in this matter, notwithstanding my confusion at his hesitation. The will to stand deserts me. I lie on my side and pant heavily, and encourage him with small whines and groans.
“I have destroyed one emperor,” Dad says. “How wrong can a man be? This venal creature deserves the mercy of neither bullet nor blade. I will not stain my honor with his thin claret.” His gaze wanders the length of the chamber and alights upon the answer to his dilemma. Nine elaborate cages depend above a steaming mud pit in the southwest quadrant. Nearby is a device that controls the pulleys and wires. This device swings the cages to my level and one by one he inspects them. In eight he discovers limp barbarian corpses, but in the ninth a healthy specimen who contrives to feign death until I bark a warning and Dad bangs the bars, provoking the prisoner to stir.
Wasted from abuse and neglect, the barbarian remains a formidable mass within his prison. He reeks of righteous malice. Dad smiles at him and burns the lock half through with his gladius. The barbarian observes with hateful stoicism. His tribe plot devilry and vengeance unto their last exhalation. Their clans war in family units. Doubtless it has been his brothers and sisters boiled in these cages. I smell the pungent rage he experiences regarding the fates of his kinsmen.
Dad does not speak the barbarian tongue. Thus, he makes his intention clear with a casual glance toward the Emperor. Then he drops the gladius and walks away. It would require scant effort for a beast such as this imprisoned warrior to fling his bulk against the lock and be free to raven throughout the peaceful solar. Who knows what havoc he might wreak before the Praetorians gain entrance.
The portals tremble as tremendous efforts begin upon them in earnest. Still faint; there is much time as time goes. Farewell, my Emperor. The kid we met in the mountains will do fine in your absence.
Dad makes a travois of his cloak and wraps me in its folds. I protest—he must abandon me to my end and save himself. He doesn’t listen. He has spoken, usually when drunk, of the primordial pact between man and dog. The pact has existed since men squatted in caves by their fires. Man and dog have been pack since we were more troglodyte, and more wolf.
We depart. Of course, this is a relative term. There is nowhere to go.
Because he was beloved before he earned the title of tyrant, the old Emperor’s tomb is a grandiose complex of marble. It is built upon a hill not far from where Dad derailed his train as he escaped from Prime. Wildflowers sprinkle the terraces. The old Emperor’s statue rises above the mausoleum dome and its stony eyes do not meet Dad’s when he kneels to offer his respects.
I lie nearby, swaddled and if not peaceful, resigned. I press my snout to Mom’s white kerchief that Dad took from his pocket to dab the gore draining from me. He whispered that if I should go on ahead and clear the way, I was a good dog and that he loved me. I breathe Mom’s perfume and she is here, her scent stronger than any dim memory of my own canine mother or littermates.
Dad’s weapons are spread beside me in a fan. Even now my mind ticks with possibilities. Is there any strength left in these bones? Could I summon a last effort to fight at Dad’s side when the Legion comes to snuff him for our treason?
Grassy fields curve unto sky notched by clouds. Somewhere the metropolis buzzes and wasps boil from the hive. At last I observe tiny shadow flickers of gliders and kites between the seam of heaven and earth. I imagine Marcello’s colors among the van. They search in swooping patterns that will soon intersect our hill.
The sun is warm on my muzzle. I drowse.
A stag appears in the field below. He coughs a challenge and nods his majestic skull. He gives me an insolent flick of his stub tail and eases toward the tall grass. Instinct, oh she truly is a bitch, and I’m on my feet in pursuit.
Pain swells and then recedes. My gait steadies. I breathe deeply of grass and musk. The breeze quickens and the sky dulls. Snow begins to fall. Soon, the stag has vanished. His tracks are swallowed in white drifts. The grass freezes like blades of upright knives.
I don’t know how long this goes on. I wander for hours, for days, for ages. Long enough that I forget what drew me here or where I’ve been. The dark and the cold and the wind and my loneliness is everything. I hear a voice from afar and my ears prick up. The voice of the wind calls my name and draws me to a hill of ice and stone. Ruddy light glimmers from within the mouth of a cave. I smell cooking meat. The two sides of my dog’s mind have a skirmish.
In the end, I creep forward. I’ll go inside and see what’s there. Perhaps I’ll warm myself by the fire.
Laird Barron is the author of several books, including The Croning, Occultation, and The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All. His work has also appeared in many magazines and anthologies. An expatriate Alaskan, Barron currently resides in upstate New York.