by Mike Baumann
“It’s okay, Bud. I’m here. I’m watching,” Glen whispered into his mic. Glen was nervous. He’d seen what could happen when a mission went wrong, and it took all the strength of his years of training to speak his words encouragingly, so that his partner on the other end of the link would be sure to stay calm and focused.
He watched on the video feed as Bud moved toward the end of the moonlit passage. The scene had a strange beauty for Glen, who had still never seen natural light himself, only these ghostly images passed on by the camera on Bud’s back as he conducted surveillance and recovery missions. Bud sniffed with his nose lowered to the ground, anticipating what might be around the bend, while Glen could only watch and unconsciously pull at the arm of his chair. Bud turned the corner, opening up a long straight hall with at least six doors off it.
“Be sure you check every room,” Glen said as much for himself as for Bud. Bud certainly knew what he was doing. He’d graduated at the top of his class from the Recovery and Advancement Academy, and that was already an elite program. He’d scored in the exceptional range in all his testing—analytical ability, memory, emotional ethics. No dog was sent out on a recovery mission without the ability to understand what they were doing and adapt to unforeseen events.
The camera mounted to Bud’s harness stopped moving.
“It’s okay, Bud. I’m here,” Glen whispered again. Bud moved ahead.
Bud understood the situation, and he was willing to keep going forward despite the risk.
Humanity had lost the first world it had been given in the Surface War. The survivors were those who had cowered deep underground in a few overlooked mine shafts. The devastation on the surface kept them from returning, and the species was wrung to near-extinction before adjusting to subterranean life. But after the darkest years, the population had started to grow again, and it had exploded since the development of core farms and the network of boretrams. Humanity’s numbers were now pressing out beyond what known settlements could hold, and the natural movement was to head back to the surface of the planet, where space, a hard-won resource in the tunnels, would be so easy to come by.
“That’s right, Bud. You’re doing a good job.”
For all their intellectual development, dogs like Bud still needed this contact, this reassuring auditory pat, or else they started to break down. Something from their pack animal roots, was the explanation Glen had heard.
That pack instinct had probably saved humanity once already. Locked away from the sun, knowing they had destroyed their own hope, despair made it almost impossible for many of the early survivors to go on. But the dogs who came with them knew nothing other than the drive to keep their packs going. They caught or scavenged food. They learned to identify the dangers in their new environment. They kept people living together.
Through all those dark, dark years, the dogs who survived were the most intelligent, the most resourceful, the most human-oriented. As humanity picked itself back up and again built significant institutions, dense settlements, technology that allowed them to extract the means of life from their surroundings, they now had a partner with a useful intelligence and disposition to work for the whole.
So, Bud was walking through one of the ancient surface buildings that still stood, inspecting for structural soundness, searching for scavengeable materials, and, most importantly, sweeping for any unexploded munis.
It was these unexploded munis that had prevented resettlement of the surface for the last few generations. The Recovery Corps called them “resurrects” for the way they seemed to rise out of dead bodies. They had been a form of cluster bomb widely used in the War. Each bomb had thousands of explosive slivers that, once dropped, could move autonomously, detect a nearby life form and plunge into it before detonating. A few of these munis could scythe life from a city and, theoretically at least, leave it habitable for the arrival of the conqueror. Instead, their gross overuse cleared the surface of all life forms larger than a mouse.
A portion of the munis had never actually detonated. Having killed their victims by severing an artery or puncturing a vital organ, their firing mechanisms had mistimed. And, as if they’d had a spirit of malevolence breathed into them by their makers, they remained armed and functional. These deadly little slivers sat in their corpses for years and years and years. As the body decomposed, it exposed its killer again. The resurrects required only the presence of another life form to reactivate and explode.
Bud reached the first doorway and moved quickly into the dark room. Glen could see some mounds of broken furnishings and the tiny drifts of dust—ranging from a bare coating to dunes a few inches high—that were all that was left of the organic matter that had once been in the room. That was where any resurrects would be.
Bud went clear around the perimeter of the room, then followed the quadrant-based path he’d been trained to use to be sure the whole room was clean.
“There you go, Bud. Nice work. I’m watching,” Glen said. Bud shook himself, thus shaking the camera, as he often did to acknowledge Glen’s comments.
Bud took his measurements. He cleared the larger piles of debris—dragging what was movable out of the way, forcing his body into any available space—to be sure they weren’t hiding anything dangerous.
Glen tracked all his movements and logged the data he was getting in the master grid. He layered a series of codes that showed up as different colors on his map. Once Bud had completed his survey and established a definite perimeter to the building, the sanitation and rehab teams would head out. The space could be habitable within a year. Eventually, some small pod of humans would again live with a view of the sky, even if they still looked downward to find the center of their civilization.
Bud barked to signal he was ready to move to the next room. “Okay,” Glen said. “One more, Bud. Your shift’s almost done. Your rations will be here soon.”
In the last year, Bud and Glen had cleared a large subterranean parking garage, a monumental hall that the architectural rehabilitators speculated had been a government building of some sort, and the first three floors of an amazingly high tower, though that recovery was called off when Bud found significant cracking in the walls and detected instability in the higher levels.
Bud headed out into the hall and angled to the next doorway on the left side of the corridor. They always followed a methodical route in new terrain.
Nonetheless, Glen thought he could see enthusiasm in Bud’s brisk trot. Bud was always efficient, but he really enjoyed finding the new spaces. When they were together, either in their rest hours or when training between missions, Bud enjoyed it when Glen talked to him about what it would be like when they cleared the whole surface, how humans and dogs would be able to walk anywhere in the green fields and mountains. It was a part of the bonding routine that kept them working smoothly as a team.
They shared the conviction that each room they found and cleared was a little victory.
Bud nosed around the corner. Another room identical to the last. So many of the ancient buildings were regular and symmetrical like this. The subterranean civilization, on the other hand, had followed the contours of existing terrain—dug into soft seams, avoided unstable layers and impenetrable rock. Sometimes Glen and Bud both felt a promise in the clean geometry of the surface, as if the people who had once lived here had been more rational and more capable than the humanity they knew. They longed to rise to a better world. Of course, the civilization that created these spaces also obliterated itself.
Bud started his walk of the perimeter after standing stock still for ten seconds to get a neutral reading on the room. As in the last room, there was a row of shelving that had collapsed into the middle of the floor. There was the coating of dust that now had Bud’s footprints in it.
The wind moaned. The building creaked. Even from his place in the cave, Glen was awed by the sense of space—and at the same time exposure—that this noise evoked in him. He could almost feel the shaky floor under Bud’s paws and sense the spire above him poking into the atmosphere.
Then he heard something else—a sharp metallic rattle. As Glen realized what it was, Bud did too and lunged forward with a clanging bark.
The resurrect no longer had enough power to fully locomote. It attempted to pounce and fell back repeatedly, producing the rattle. But it had its reservoir of explosive and the energy to trigger it.
Bud moved at full, animal speed to put himself on top of the muni and absorb most of the explosion in his own body. They trained the dogs to run away, but so many had this martyr’s instinct.
Glen saw the connection go dead. Blackness on his screen.
He knew what had happened. The blast would rip through Bud’s chest, shredding skin and muscle but leaving the larger bones intact. The resurrects contained a very fine particulate shrapnel designed to kill without destroying nearby structures. Bits of flesh and fur and skin would spread in a mist. Blood would pour out on the floor.
Glen marked the room as having a deactivated muni. It pulsed red on his grid now. Another dog would have to go out and finish the recovery.
Glen had lost partners before. He’d get two weeks’ trauma leave. Then he’d train up with a new partner. In maybe half a year he’d be running missions again. But he knew he’d keep thinking about the ones who died.
Glen closed out of the master grid. He shut down his terminal. He didn’t rise out of his chair for a long time. He felt like some band looping through his heart and abdomen held him down.
There was no question the dogs gave themselves up. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. But Glen knew he’d be haunted by a kind of guilt and the thought, especially as he eased back to his family life, his rec league, and his weekly card game, that the better made life possible for the worse. And by going on living, he knew he was one of the worse.