art by Billy Sagulo
Tommy and the Beast
by Bud Sparhawk
Bud Sparhawk is a frequently published short story author with two collections and Vixen, a mass market novel. He most recently appeared in Analog and several anthologies available from Amazon. He has been a Nebula finalist three times for his novellas. Backgrounds on all of his stories can be found at budsparhawk.com. He also writes a popular weekly blog at Budsparhawk.blogspot.com.
***Editor's Note: Adult language in the adult story that follows***
I don't know how or why the conflict started or what our objective was. All I knew was that four guys in green uniforms came to the farm, trudged through the fields to my flock, pointed at me, and told me I was a trainee--a volunteer citizen soldier. Me, Alex Sorenson Lightfoot Hardy the Third, and, by God and the Saints of Church ElRon, a soldier. It was ridiculous. I was a shepherd, not a fighter.
It didn't matter.
They poured simulations into me under cold sleep during our trip of a gazillion light years to someplace I'd never heard of so that when I woke I not only could operate four kinds of weapons, knew the fucking chain-o-confusion, and had an abiding hatred of all things alien, officers, and the assholes who thought I might enjoy something other than herding sheep analogues on Nowheresville, North Continent, AK134b12.4, or as we called it, the Sun.
My first calming effort, where we wiped a nest of aliens that were trying to take away our colony was a bust. They didn't put up much of a fight initially--our predecessors were pretty efficient at squashing bugs and more so at getting rid of those stupid nests they built atop one another. All we had to do was wipe up the residuals. Easy, command said and threw us into the maw of ground combat. We lost the entire company, save me, and, since I was the sole survivor, they thought I might have valuable survivor skills, promoted me, remembered I'd been a shepherd, gave me handler training I didn't need, and shipped me somewhere else this side of nowhere, only warmer.
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Tommy was scarcely more than a pup, newly trained to sniff aliens and eager to fight. I had to sleep, eat, and exercise with him for months before we were thoroughly and totally bonded into a single unified fighting machine.
Tommy had a sweet disposition, being derived from boarder collie stock, and sported the tan, black, and while fur peculiar to that line. His left eye was blue and the right brown. He tilted his head to the side when he was puzzled and put his ears back when he was angry.
In battle Tommy was a champ. He'd detect, circle and harass an alien with little to no guidance, herding them into my line of fire more times than not. In direct confrontations he became a holy terror, a furry mass of gnashing teeth, wicked claws, and energy. Few survived an encounter with him. I really loved that dog.
Arrival was the usual mass confusion as we armed, loaded, and were dropped to the surface. We landed fast, rolling under the radar to land hard close to our primary objective. Wilson went out first, cut in two by some sort of weapon or superwire stretched across some trees. We all stayed low, just in case, as we spread wide to limit the number of targets our squad offered.
Tommy darted right and I followed once we were out. I didn't need to check the rest of the squad; we all knew our roles and tactics as well as the fingers of our hands.
Tommy whined suddenly and then crouched so I made like a pancake and became one with the ground as something whistled overhead, clipping the tip of my pack and destroying the bush behind me. Close.
Ratcheting fire on my left from Aragon's K97 loosing a full load and being answered with the sound of HE hitting nearby. I hoped that indicated they were unsure of our dispersal and motioned Tommy forward.
He didn't move. I reached out. He was trembling, his heart beating so rapidly that I could feel it through my glove. He heard, smelled, saw, sensed something hidden to me. The trembling wasn't fear--we'd worked together for too long and he was never afraid--so it had to be anticipation. Something stealthy was coming ever closer, ever nearer to our position.
Very quietly I primed my own K97 and turned its muzzle to point along Tommy's nose. I put one finger on the trigger while my other hand tapped Tommy's trembling side. Two taps of my finger to his ribs told him I wanted him to lie still while I fired. He'd still jump when the first round went off, but not panic. Well trained.
There was a faint click from ten meters ahead, sounding like two stones hitting. I shifted my vision to the low rise of dirt ahead and elevated the '97 toward the crest. If anything came over....
The beast's head exploded as the rounds impacted and the ratcheting sounds reverberated from the surrounding trees.
I whispered a prayer, breathed normally and slowly caressed the trigger. The beast's head exploded as the rounds impacted and the ratcheting sounds reverberated from the surrounding trees.
Tommy was up as soon as the firing stopped, tearing at the still thrashing alien beast as I belly crawled forward to make certain there wasn't something else hiding behind the mound.
There wasn't, but in the distance I saw a dark from slip into a clump of thick vegetation--the beast's master, I assumed.
"My position, twenty meters forward, two clicks left," I whispered to Jacobs, who should be flanking me with the ME109k. Whump! A second later a fire-laced cloud grew beyond the hidden alien. "High," I reported and--whump--watched the clump and the reported alien disappear in another explosive cloud: One down, maybe, and more to go before we could clear this sector.
I don't know how it happened but I took a wrong turn somewhere and fell into some native tangleroot that was more embarrassing than dangerous and usually took a long time to get free.
Tommy stayed right by my side as I fought the roots, patiently guarding while I hacked and cursed, his head tilting whenever I rested. He left once, tearing off on a broad sweep that was probably more fueled by impatience than any scent of alien and returned, tongue lolling as he resumed his watch.
By the time I got free the squad had moved on, one of the rear guard had already moved up to close the gap I'd left. I fell into his backup position as soon as I could catch up with the van.
We were part of a large net scouring the jungle for the remnants of an alien force that was fighting us for control of this planet that neither had settled sufficiently to establish themselves--or so I was told, as if the filthy alien bastards had any claim whatsoever to a potential human world.
Day after day we plodded along while reports of spaceships throwing mass at each other overhead filtered down. The space battles were more mathematical exercises than anything, since it was hard to hide something coming at you and all were wise in the ways of orbital mechanics.
Mostly it was a question of resources--which side could haul throwing mass into orbit without endangering anyone on the planet or accidentally offing one of your own. Navy stuff and therefore of little interest to us ground troops who did the real fighting.
Tommy started whining when we came upon a narrow valley between two sheer cliffs that might have been formed in a geologically recent uplift, but there was no sign of aliens in the valley. Just to be sure the lieutenant launched one of his little spy drones to sweep the valley before we made our way down. The second wave waited until the first was away from the base before they started their descent. Tommy and I were in the last group and were to make for the far side as soon as we got down.
Which is why the cascade of fire that rained on the company caught us all completely by surprise.
The first wave went down in instants while our second threw a counter barrage. Blossoms of bright orange grew on the hillsides, and mushrooms of gray dusted the ridges. Flickers of weapons firing filtered by the thick overgrowth showed where more local battles raged. Under the clear, blue sky dotted with wisps of cloud men and aliens died, their screams hidden under the implosive and explosives sounds of HE and rifle fire, the whump of a 109, or the death rattle of a '97. It was surreal, distant, yet all too near.
I became scared shitless when I felt Tommy shiver as he pressed against my leg and heard the advancing impacts of cascade fire marching toward us. We had to get out of the way of the enfilade, and quickly.
"Away," I said and bolted toward the cliff face, sliding down an incline, sloshing through a crystal clear stream, and slithering among a maze of rocks fractured from the steep cliff above me, and...
A blast caught me. Fragments of splintered rock sliced up my right leg and into my side. The tough fabric of my uniform protected me somewhat, preventing the shards from penetrating too deeply into my muscles but enough to produce a soak of blood. I checked. No spurts, so veins and arteries must not have been hit.
I tried to keep moving, to find a defensible position along the rock face, somewhere I could hide and still have an open field of fire. That's when I noticed my right arm wasn't one hundred percent; more like ten or twenty, hardly enough to heft my '97. The leg was worse than useless.
There was a soft whump like a sack of sand hitting a wall and something ricocheted off a rock near me. Enemy weapons fire. I lifted the '97 with my left hand and let off a couple rounds in the general direction.
No return fire so maybe I hit whatever was shooting.
I couldn't crawl and hold the rifle so I pulled the strap over my shoulder and used my left leg to push myself along. The damn backpack caught on every rock, root, and clump so I dropped it, hooking the strap over my useless right foot.
My right side screamed in agony whenever I pushed along but I couldn't do anything about that until I was in a safer position. Crawl, drag, pause for breath, and repeat. How long did it take? Hours that seemed eternal, minutes counted with needles of pain, and seconds of agony, but I couldn't stop.
Where was Tommy? Had he been hit in the blast? Had the damn alien sniper shot him? I risked a look around and saw no trace of him, but what I did see made me reconsider my situation. One of the gray alien beasts appeared in the distance, obviously sweeping the area, looking for me. Well, as soon as it found where I'd been hit, there would be a twenty-lane trail of blood and spoor leading directly to wherever I wound up.
Where was Tommy?
I finally reached a narrow passage where an enormous rock had been split in two and followed to wherever it might lead. There was a large smelly burrow dug into the ground at the end, but I ignored that--too easy to be trapped inside--and continued to crawl up the hillside, across a bed of scree, and into a cavity that protected my sides and back. I waited. If any alien came through that passage I'd nail them for sure.
I reached for my pack and realized I'd lost it somewhere downslope without noticing. That left the stuff in my remaining pockets and on my belt--some rations, first aid kit, and one magazine of ammo: the others must have fallen out along with the pack. Damn! The register on the '97 said I had five rounds left, which meant I could shoot only fifteen aliens, and probably hit none.
I was not in a good spot.
I saw a flash of variegated color as Tommy darted among the rocks further down the slope, behind the last position of the alien beast. Was he driving the alien toward me or leading it unnecessarily? I locked and loaded. Waited. It wouldn't be long.
Night fell. I'd pretty much depleted the kit's meds, except for the painkillers. I broke one in two, hoping it wouldn't make me too drowsy. Couldn't afford sleep. Not now. In the distance something roared defiance at the universe. Whether it was something native or alien I had no clue.
The night grew long and the sounds of battle faded into the distance. I had no idea of how many of my mates were dead or if the aliens had prevailed. Were the remnants of the fight the only occupants of the valley, the only ones left alive? I thought long about this as I watched, wondering if it mattered. As far as command was concerned, I'd died when my comm went dead. No rescue for me. But I could still fight, still kill that bastard who was stalking me, and maybe its beast as well.
A bark. Tommy. And close. A moment later a lump of fur landed on me and tried to consume me with slobbering kisses. I put my weak right arm on him as he settled beside me in contentment with one of the ration packs. With him as an early warning helper I could at last afford to rest.
With dawn light I again glimpsed the beast following my trail. It moved slowly and, behind it was one of the aliens slowly crawling along. Strange behavior, but I noticed it kept cover. Tommy whined, quivering over something. Had he caught a whiff of the beast's scent?
I watched the pair grow closer and then drop below sight as they approached the split boulder. I primed the rifle, rested it on my left knee to get the elevation right, and pressed it forward to tighten the strap and hold it steady. I wasn't that good as a left-handed shooter.
Tommy darted off in the direction he had come. I hoped it would be to keep the alien's beast from following that same route.
Whump--that same sack of wet sandbag sound as something bounced off to my left. It must be shooting blind to have missed by that much. I put my finger on the trigger, waiting, as the daylight brightened.
Suddenly there was another roar, much closer this time, and the alien bolted from the slot, followed immediately by a huge brown animal with yellow claws the size of shovels and teeth even more terrible. Now I knew what had dug that den. It jumped on the alien and smashed it to the ground.
The action so surprised me that I didn't think about shooting but just looked in horrified amazement as this monster was doing my job for me. It stood on its hind legs, sniffed the air and looked my way. Its mouth was open, exposing the huge sharp teeth of a carnivore.
I shat myself. The '97 slipped off my knee and hit the ground, loosing a fusillade of rounds spraying everywhere, except where it mattered. I tried to pull it back into position but knew I was moving too slow.
Then the alien's beast was on the monster's back and Tommy was biting at its haunches. The alien began to crawl as soon as the monster lifted its paw and was slammed down with another brutal hit as it tried to shake off its attackers.
Tommy danced back, teasing the monster as the alien's beast harassed the other haunch. A quick slash nearly caught Tommy but he danced away as the beast abandoned the futile attack on the haunches and leaped to its back.
The monster rolled to squeeze the beast against the rock but it jumped off just in time. Tommy continued barking and darting, keeping attention on himself. All the beast did was make puny little keening sounds, barely more than a whisper in comparison.
I saw the alien feebly drag itself out of reach, but the monster slammed it down again. The little bastard was tough, I'll give it that.
Tommy's increasingly confident dance came to an end suddenly as the monster turned, swung a massive paw and sent Tommy against the cliff wall to then fall limp on the ground.
"You don't fucking hit my dog," I screamed as I finally got the '97 aimed toward the monster and loosed the remaining rounds into its body. It looked my way, roared in defiance, and started toward me. Apparently I must have hit its leg because it stumbled and fell. As it began to get back up, I fumbled for another clip, slipped it into the register, lifted the barrel, and fired the full clip into its head, body, legs, and wherever else the bouncing, kicking recoil sent the rounds. And still it came, like an onrushing train looming immense and fearsome over me.
To collapse, like a towering mountain of fur, flesh, claw, and fang and send fresh waves of pain as it crushed my legs. Its head rested on my crotch, one immense tooth poised to drop where the sun don't shine if I shifted an inch. I blacked out.
To regain consciousness in the full blaze of a late afternoon sun and smelling the stink of the monster's massive body pinning me to the ground. Down slope the alien was making soft chirping sounds, but without any pattern that might be language – probably groaning or something. Its beast lay beside it, tucked under one limp limb.
I checked the register. Two rounds left. One for the beast and one for the alien, that is, if I could bring the barrel around to point at either one. The monster's paw blocked any movement in that direction. I was at the mercy of the beast once it abandoned its master, partner, or whatever relationship they had.
Tommy's body still lay limp where he had been thrown in that fierce battle that he had no chance of surviving. In fact, neither he nor the alien beast had a chance. More likely they were two loyal helpers defending we two fallen warriors.
The alien stopped chirping, stopped moving, and stopped being a threat. Good, two rounds for the beast if it came after me.
I pulled a tab on the ration pack and let the smell of warm Meal Option 2.1 overtake the monster's stench. Some of the smell must have reached the beast because its head came up instantly, watching me spoon goblets with my weak right fingers. I dribbled more on my chest than ever entered my mouth.
I tossed the can downslope, hoping to entice the beast within range but it bounced and skittered away behind the bulk of the dead monster's body. The beast moved quickly and I soon heard slurping and chewing. A moment later it returned the dead alien, nosed its way under a convenient limb and settled down.
Night fell, the valley's silence broken only by roars of my monster's companions as I fell into darkness. I awoke to find the beast pressing on my chest and licking the residue of last night's meal. "What the hell?" The beast jerked away and raced back to the fallen alien before I could bring the '97 around. Damn.
Morning brought more hunger and another half of a pain pill. The beast was nosing the alien, pushing against the thing's body as if trying to impel it to motion.
Eventually, it gave up and resumed its position under the obviously stiff limb, where it remained until I popped another ration and greedily licked it off my nearly numb fingers, as before getting more onto than into me. The beast watched every move.
When I was done I took more careful aim when I pitched the can and watched it land exactly where I wanted. By the time I had the '97 in position, the beast had dashed out, seized the ration and returned to push it against the alien's face again and again until at last it gave up and consumed the remains.
Night fell and with it renewed roaring. This time the sounds were coming from opposite directions and closer. Were they the monster's rivals coming in to claim his territory or family come to see what happened? I had no doubt that they could smell the stench, telling them of its death.
As the last vestige of light faded I spotted the first visitor coming toward the den, toward us. I could no longer feel anything below my waist so I risked shifting position uncaring of the long tooth, braced the '97 on the monster's broad head, and pointed it at the opening.
Beast must have sensed their approach as well and jerked erect to face the oncoming monster. Now that its back was toward me I could see the massive bulk of its rear legs--an animal built for leaping which is why it attacked the monster as it had. The creature's gray fur bristled about its ruff. There was only a small stub of a tail that I could see.
I heard the new arrival snuffling loudly near the den entrance, probably confused that the smell was coming from upslope. Beast warily moved to the high side of the slope and out of my field of fire. When was this one coming and would my pitiful shots matter one whit?
Then beast was gone, leaping to the top of the split boulder--a ten meter jump at least--and beyond. There was a sharp keening, a returning snuffle, and a scramble of scree as one or both moved downhill. I waited. In the distance two dark forms moved away, but I was sure they'd be back.
The roar was so loud and close that I nearly jerked off a round. I had forgotten about the second monster. Where was it? I debated aiming at the crevice or elsewhere when the thing charged toward me. The '97 clattered aside as I tried to find the trigger.
Then the monster roared again, nearly deafening me, and rose up on all fours. Clinging to its back was the beast, clawing and chewing and tearing at the thick flesh. The monster turned away to deal with this unexpected distraction as I managed to point the muzzle at the mountain of black fur over me. It might be a groin shot for all I knew but I had to help. Just as I squeezed the trigger the monster swatted the beast.
Right into my line of fire.
That irritation gone, the new monster rushed toward me, opened its huge mouth, clamped its jaws around the dead monster's rear leg, and dragged it backwards. The dead monster's fang ripped a fresh furrow along my dead leg. I watched the dead animal being dragged past the beast's still body, and past Tommy's. Finally it stopped dragging the carcass. Crunching, eating sounds ensued to the accompaniment of what I took to be sounds of delight.
The second monster arrived, sniffed, and took command of the right haunch.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the beast struggle to get to its feet and, failing that, begin to crawl toward its dead master. Halfway there it paused, turned, and made its slow way toward me. I had one round left. I shifted the barrel toward it and then stopped. Something would not let me pull the trigger. I let the '97 fall to the ground and waited for whatever would come. I had no hope of survival.
The beast reached me, put its head on my chest and began to lick the residue of my last meal. This close I could see the wide hole my round had torn in its side and felt badly.
I popped the remaining ration packs, gave one to the beast and ate the other, making our own sounds of satisfaction to accompany those of our dining companions.
We were a strange tableaux; two live and one dead bear analogues, a dead dog to the side, while my enemy's alien beast and I slurped corps rations not far from its masters corpse. Never in a million years could I have imagined a more bizarre last meal.
The bear analogues made satiated sounds, rolled on their sides and began to snore loudly. I took the last pain pill and noticed that the beast hadn't finished the ration but had pressed close to my side.
I slipped my arm around it, feeling the surprisingly silky fur in my fingers. I put a hand on the beast's chest, felt the faint, soft, slow thump of its heart, the gentle, barely perceivable and ragged movement of its rib cage with each tortured breath.
How strange this was, it lying by my side as Tommy would have; companionable, warm, and friendly. I owed it for the way it teamed with Tommy to defend us, forming an instant bond against a common enemy. Would the dead alien and I have reached an equal accord had things been different? Instead we had to the last been trying to kill one another.
And now my enemy's companion and I shared a meal, a snuggle, and our last bit of comfort. I put my cheek against the side of the beast's head, uncaring of the blood and filth and whispered into what might be its unhearing ear. "I'm here, fellow. I'm still with you."
I gently ran my fingers through the fur and saw a slight response of its wagging tail. Thump. The heartbeat seemed slower now, less cadenced, with a bit more flutter perhaps. Thump. "Damn it, why did you come back?" I cursed, tears running down my cheeks and mixing with the blood and snot and filth and--oh, Christ, why can't I just take some of its pain away, staunch the blood, help it breathe, and why I hadn't thought about sharing that last pain pill?
Thump. Had that last heartbeat been a trifle slow in coming? Was it still breathing? I waited for the next heartbeat and counted--one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and fucking forever as the heart beat no more and the beast's tortured lungs lost their last ration of air.
It was gone. Exhaustion hit me as a deeper darkness than I'd ever known started to descend. If I was lucky I would not last the night.
I clutched the beast's soft fur and breathed deeply of its alien scent, hugging the limp warm body as if it were my Tommy. Holding it to keep it from the ugliness of a universe where dogs were wiser than people.
Where it mattered that even a beast should have to die.
This story was first published on Friday, December 20th, 2013
"Tommy and the Beast" was one of two dog stories written at the same time--each informing the other and dealing with the truth of conflict. Tommy was a difficult story to write since the process evoked memories of all the dogs I've loved and lost.
I cannot read the final scene at conventions without crying.
I cannot read the final scene at conventions without crying.
- Bud Sparhawk
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