I. Get to Know the Dogs

Rita got up at seven, drank what was left of the coffee, and turned on the local etherbox broadcast. A razor-sharp woman was reading the news, quickly, with no inflection or transition.

“Chicago is in a heat wave, and it is currently forty degrees. The gargoliths have confiscated 3,675,827 dogs for the war effort. Evader service twelve has as last been eliminated.” This was the service to which Rita had just given 28,000 banknotes. “Authorities announce that a conscription lottery has been drawn for zone sixty.” Rita heard a hundred numbers read out: hers (5,347) was the third one on the list. “Low pain threshold is caused by genetic insufficiency; 900,000 new recruits will undergo gene therapy.” Rita was too busy with her fear to hear the razor-sharp woman after that.

Later, at the induction island for the zone sixty war, she put on a lime-green uniform and resigned herself to being called Chicago. During training the simulated enemy was invisible and effective, and Chicago learned what fear could make her do and what it would prevent. On the last night she approached a man in a lemon-yellow uniform, who had fresh bloodstains on his sleeve. He was smoking a cigarette and holding one of the company’s dogs, a terrier wearing a harness. “I’m Chicago,” she said. “Do you know when we’ll ship out?”

The man shrugged his shoulders. “I’m Mombasa,” he said. “They’ll tell us when it’s time.” By then a gargolith had moved close enough that its clove-and-turpentine scent was almost overpowering. Chicago had heard that gargoliths, like dogs, could smell our fear.

“Steady your nerves,” said the gargolith.

“My nerves are steady,” Chicago answered. The gargolith made a notation, rattled its limbs, and quickly slid away.

“Let me give you a little advice,” said Mombasa. “First of all, don’t contradict the gargoliths.” He enumerated this first point on an outstretched thumb. “Don’t look too closely at the gargoliths.” He indicated this on his index finger. “Don’t try to escape the gargoliths.” This on the middle finger. “Have no illusions about the gargoliths.” On the ring finger. “And get to know the dogs.” His bent small finger remained poised in the air, and Chicago turned away. The terrier barked at her until she had converted her uniform into a sleeping bag. Then she lay awake half the night, staring at the still-familiar stars.

II. Sleep Phase

After the transport to zone sixty there was a simple debrief and a complex debrief. Chicago felt entirely disoriented and she said so to Mombasa.

“It’s always this way,” he said. “This is my third tour. The second started with hygienic installation.”

Chicago shuddered. “Even for the dogs?”

The man nodded and bent to scratch the top of the terrier’s shaggy brown head. There was a loud blast of sound that rose in pitch until all the dogs began to howl along with it. Then a voice announced: “Lights out,” and the entire camp was plunged into darkness.

“I don’t know where anything is,” Chicago said in a panicked voice.

“You will soon,” said Mombasa, and at that moment thousands of bioluminescent patches winked into view. They were arranged in an immense variety of approximate-looking shapes, almost but not quite like half-moons, hearts, fruits of various kinds, symbols and hieroglyphs from a partially effaced script, pendants and pendulums, royal insignias, and angel-wings. By the flickering light, three gargoliths could be seen spraying foam from long, narrow canisters.

“What are they doing?” Chicago whispered.

“Eradicating,” said Mombasa. Then he quietly lifted the flap to the garrison dome, and they slid inside, laying themselves wherever there was room. Chicago had trouble sleeping, so she tried to calm herself as she listened to the soft snores around her and the distant sounds of the gargoliths eradicating.

Suddenly a woman’s voice called out: “A fifth tour! And I gave the evader service a mechanical orchestra…” Then a long silence. Chicago could hear high-pitched snoring -- maybe the terrier. Finally she said, “This is my first tour.”

At that moment a loud shrill whistle sounded, and everyone began stretching, coughing, dressing, shouldering past each other to get to the latrine. “But it’s still dark,” Chicago said.

“You don’t need much sleep here, if that’s what you’re worried about,” said a woman wearing a cherry-red uniform. Her short spiky hair stood nearly on end. “I’m Reykjavik, by the way.”

“I’m Chicago, and I didn’t sleep at all.”

“It doesn’t matter. Something about the smell of the gargoliths. Or this pressure in the ears and on the spine. Do you have a pressure on your spine, dear?”

When Chicago didn’t answer, Reykjavik added, “Or maybe it’s our philosophy, the way we learn to serve.”

Suddenly a gargolith, still partially coiled from its sleep phase, slid between Chicago and Reykjavik. “Where are you from?” it asked Chicago, and before she could answer, it began to make low, light, bell-like sounds. “We’re all recovering from sleep phase,” it said. “In one way or another. Be strong. Be fit. Wait for further instructions.”

When the gargolith had gone, leaving a particularly sharp scent in its wake, Reykjavik said, “There. That’s better. I’m feeling able to insert myself now, aren’t you?” In an attempt to maintain her integrity, Chicago said nothing at all.

III. Fall Free

Chicago thought she heard the flight gargolith yell “All Free!” but then realized she was hearing the command to fall. She began to strap on her jump-chute and shuddered as she thought about the ground below. The soil in this sector was porous, almost like quicksand in places, and sometimes there were moist, long-leafed plants that flapped against her legs like the tongues of unruly dogs. Chicago didn’t like the way the plane smelled -- of gargolith waste and spent crane fuel -- but she wasn’t in a hurry to leave it. She went to the now-opened hatch and hunkered down behind Mombasa. His eyes were closed, and he was holding the terrier tightly against himself. The dog was fitted with a jump-chute of his own, but he was trembling violently.

“Can’t you hold him while you fall?” Chicago asked. She spoke directly into Mombasa’s ear, but because the noise of the plane was almost deafening, she didn’t think he heard her until he turned and said, “He has to learn. If he doesn’t, they’ll take him.”

At that moment someone fell. It was customary to shout an oath or curse on the way through the hatch, but the wail of the falling man was inarticulate. The dog trembled even more violently. Then there was a burst of violet light, and everyone near the hatch began to call to the numbers in the thick and noisy air. Building a chance matrix, it was called. It was like a prayer to the odds. “Praise 53,” said Mombasa fervently.

“My best prime,” Chicago said, and the man smiled and handed her the terrier.

“Hold him,” he said. “If I’m not the one who carries him, they might think he’s learned.” Then he shouted loudly and slipped from the bottom of the plane. There was a burst of yellow light so bright that even the gargolith rocked back and forth and covered its eyes. And while its eyes were covered, Chicago fell from the plane, holding the little dog under one arm. She could feel his panic-stricken heart beating next to her ribs. There was a violent burst of orange light, and for a few seconds Chicago felt stunned. Then she saw parts of a gargolith rain past her, and she realized that the transport had been hit.

After that she drifted down so slowly that she had time to count the hardware being sent to distract the enemy. Though they had not yet been encountered in any other medium than etherbox transmission, the enemy was considered to hold an extremely materialist worldview and to desire all manner of goods. Many unclaimed objects now cluttered the ground below, such as hand-held technology, personal grooming attachments, field communications stabilizers, color-based weapons, pod-finishing devices, fluxors, tractors, and guard equivalences, and these had been sent down in order to sow disequilibrium. Chicago wondered if there was any evidence this had happened. At that moment, a group of drill drones slid by, and they created a great deal of turbulence in the darkening air. Then there was a flash of aquamarine light, and Chicago could see that the ground was very near.

Once down, chute folded and packed, she removed the terrier’s chute so he could run for a while with the other dogs. Bits of debris from the troop transport and various items intended to distract the enemy continued to rain down. Chicago picked up a broken fluxor and played with its antenna array. It began to work suddenly, washing the camp with loud, percussive music, but the gargolith came and took it away.

At last the final surviving crewmember from the troop transport reached the ground, and he sank into the spongy soil all the way up to his knees. “We can’t fall free forever,” he said, as Chicago helped him to pull himself out of the ground.

“Praise 31,” she whispered as she wiped the green slime from her hands.

IV. In the Fire Zone

In the Fire Zone the dog is the indicator species. When the canine can’t smell the parameters of the battle, the human will soon begin to falter. On the night Chicago saw the terrier go down, she first saw a blinding flash of indigo light. By that light and its afterglow, she checked her gauges and a multiplicity of tubules. Then she looked to her left to verify position (Reykjavik was kneeling and sighting). She looked to her right to verify intention (Mombasa was cradling the terrier, and the other dogs were rigid). And when the indigo light was almost entirely gone, she fell down into the spongy soil -- knee-deep, hip-deep, eye-deep. Her consciousness began to spread into the earth like the roots of a vast tree. “The dog is key,” she said and struggled upward, but the tree’s roots held her fast.

Or at least that was how it seemed, until the stars asked her a question and she refused to answer. “They’re tiny and pointed like knives,” she said. “Sharp and tiny as knives.”

“What about knives?” asked Mombasa, leaning over her and breathing just a little smoke into her face. (His cigarette was hidden behind his back, but she could taste the heat of it, as well as the dog’s panting breath.)

“It was a dream,” she said, looking at her hands, bruised from the somnawrap.

“The dog was badly hurt,” said the man, drawing deeply on his cigarette. “Light-induced trauma, they said. They kept his eyes in bandages for ages. He’s a whole new organism now.”

“How long have I been here?” she asked.

“Weeks,” he said. “You were lucky. It has been the foulest weather imaginable. Acid snow -- the crystals burn the skin.” He pulled back the sleeve of his jumpsuit to show her a cluster of circular scars that formed a gentle, seemingly decorative, lacy pattern.

“I hate to say it, but it’s almost pretty.”

Mombasa grimaced, straightened his uniform and grabbed up the dog, whose eyes were now deep orange. “See? Almost pretty. He’s a whole new organism now.”

She sighed and asked, “So can I walk?”

“Look,” he said, pulling back the blankets. “Your new foot. Almost pretty.”

And it was. Glistening like a gargolith, shiny gray and blue. She flexed her leg and a turpentine smell wafted into the air. “Praise 107,” she said.

“Back to the Fire Zone,” he answered, grasping her hand to help her up. She thought about the part of herself that had been lost. She wondered what new organism she might become in time.

V. The Manual of Seeking and Finding

“All planes take ultra-test fractionated high-grade, all drones need fortified sweet, and gargolith command must regularly bathe in pure crude to keep our systems meshed. Reserves are low, and need is pressing. All of you must seek and find.” When the gargolith had finished speaking, it cruised to the top of the ridge and went into stasis, dripping minute amounts of lubricant into a blue glass conservation cup. This was to be its one contribution.

Seeking was the most urgent purpose of the dogs, and all of them were brought into play, including the terrier. “Seek!” said Mombasa in a weary voice. The dog immediately turned to sniff at the base of a mottled gray fungus, fan-shaped and freestanding, known as a truffle target, then began to dig frantically. Mombasa pulled a glass finder flask, filled with capillary straws, from his bag and thrust it down into the boggy soil, past the dog’s flailing paws. There was a brief glow and a smell of leaf mold. Then a small amount of murky brown fluid entered the finder flask.

“Is it crude?” asked Chicago, who was crouched beside a smooth, round rock.

Mombasa sniffed deeply at the longest of the capillary straws. “Sweet,” he pronounced. “Seek!” he said again, more loudly than before, and he shoved the small dog’s shaggy brown rump. The creature’s orange eyes seemed reproachful for a few seconds, but then he headed toward the ridge at breakneck speed.

Reykjavik came by, carrying a long length of yellowed cloth wrapped around her arm in multiple complex folds. She stopped and squeezed a corner of it experimentally and breathed deeply. Then she sighed. “It’s almost impossible for me to differentiate high quality cracked and fractionated from unsubstantiated rock slime. This, however, happens to be recycled from a gargolith.”

Mombasa made a face. “Get it away from here,” he said, and taking out a clean finder flask, he followed the dog.

Chicago, who was still crouching by the smooth, round rock, looked up at Reykjavik. “It isn’t healthy,” she said, inching backward to avoid touching a hanging length of yellowed cloth.

“So do you plan to seek or just lounge around all day?”

Before Chicago could answer, the terrier, which had already reached the ridge where the gargolith was parked, began to howl. Mombasa, finder flask in his outstretched hand, could faintly be heard trying to silence the dog. The gargolith, annoyed, extended a loose coil and withdrew it abruptly. Then it heat-squeezed its blue conservation cup, altering the shape and causing thick drops of lubricant to burst forth. But the dog would not be silenced, so the gargolith slid off the ridge and headed back toward the camp. Chicago and Reykjavik had nearly reached the ridge when they heard Mombasa shout, “It’s a rift. We have tectonic prospect.” By the time the two women got there, a long narrow finger lake had formed, filled with a glossy silver liquid.

“What is it?” asked Reykjavik.

As the dog continued to howl, Chicago bent to pinch a bit of the liquid between her fingers and brought it to her mouth. Her face contorted with surprise when she tasted a compound of sweet grapes and camphor with an indescribable acid tingle as an aftertaste -- there was no mistaking it. “Fractionated high grade,” she said.

At that moment the dog stopped howling and froze, his orange eyes as intense as those of a well-trained pointer, as the native flying things arrived. Their ruffled metallic rotary wings looked as sharp as surgical blades, and they landed on the surface of the lake, then shivered themselves, turning again and again until they were covered with the glossy silver liquid. Their clear high notes sounded so much like spring birdsong that Chicago was tempted to throw off her heavy suit and bathe herself in the fractionate, too. Until, that is, a gargolith spy plane dipped low, and one of the flying things burst into flames.

“Fractionate!” warned Mombasa, grabbing up the dog, but it was too late. The flying things, prone to intensified sympathy and kept from flying by the heaviness of the liquid, all caught fire and burned. Reykjavik backed away from the heat of the silver flames, and she tossed the length of yellowed cloth contemptuously into the fire.

Chicago pulled a copy of “The Manual of Seeking and Finding” from her survival turban and began to scan it, brushing falling ash from her face. “We’re probably in the clear,” she said, “but if they saw us, they reserve the right to charge us.” By then, however, the fractionate and the flying things, the only evidence, were nothing but vapor and ash.

VI. Toward Unlimited Engagement

Because the enemy remained unseen, it was hard to know how many troops, how many drones, how many wakeful nights, and how many dogs were really needed. That was why, after a prolonged lack of success with limited engagement, reinforcements were called for.

“Prices at the vice bazaar are bound to go up,” Mombasa told Chicago as they watched more troop transports glide into view.

Before Chicago could answer, there was a loud crackling static, and a black patch opened in the bright sky like a window into the night. A rotating object, thin and sharp as a needle, hung there for a few seconds before announcing a parade drill. Chicago and Mombasa stood at attention, with the terrier between them, and watched as the lines of reinforcements went by.

The parade seemed much the same as always. Late model fear drones led the way, followed by a full complement of spectrum gunners, rapier practitioners, blue orbit cavalry, ontogeny infantry, pressure specialists, demolitions scavengers, detritus and orbital web refractors, as well as the endless variety of dog handlers. Each flew the appropriate silks, and Mombasa and Chicago watched until the last of them had paraded past the failsafe tower and over the horizon.

Reykjavik ran up, breathless, pulling bits of mortar maze from her spiky hair. “We’re at outpost now,” she announced. “And look who’s here.”

From behind a solid wall of manifestation synthesizers came a man and a gargolith. One of the gargolith’s limbs was wrapped around the man’s neck, its blue-gray tip visible and pulsing on a background of human flesh.

“The paladin medic,” said Mombasa with undisguised distaste.

When man and gargolith had reached the small group, the gargolith slid off obliquely, playing martial music from an unseen orifice. “We’re at outpost now,” announced the paladin medic, pointedly ignoring the terrier. “I’m here for the engagement. The beige turret tower will be the dispensary. You’re all required to report for final assessment at oh-seven-hundred.”

“I don’t know where the beige turret tower is,” Chicago said, confused, and then she turned to see that massive towers had risen in an arc-shaped formation around nearly three-quarters of the perimeter of the encampment. They were color-coded and bore various flags and insignia. She could see the beige tower out near the horizon, flying a long, thin rapid-air streamer with a deuterium hussar insignia. Next to it, a communications tower pulsed a nearly subaudible sound motif meant to be both percussive and provocative. It offered, in terms the enemy would readily understand, a call for unlimited engagement. To Chicago, who had just become aware of it, it sounded like a distant heartbeat, overlaid by occasional rumblings and gurglings. She felt as though she had been swallowed by a giant animal and was waiting to be digested.

“The thing about being at outpost,” said the paladin medic, “is that there are compensations.”

“Small ones,” said Mombasa. He pulled a brush from his hip pocket and bent to work vigorously on the terrier’s coat.

“There’s more than one Eros equalization zone,” the paladin medic went on, looking pointedly at Chicago. “Proofing drugs are available. Malt-blend gambling. Eye patches. Free quality enhancers.” He paused and addressed Mombasa: “Interested?”

“I prefer to have my wits about me,” said Mombasa. The paladin medic turned on his heel and was gone. “I prefer to have my wits about me,” said Mombasa, “though that’s all but impossible toward unlimited engagement.”

“Unlimited engagement,” Reykjavik was saying, “is unlike anything...”

But Chicago had focused every bit of her attention on re-attaching a disrupted filter function line and tried not to hear her.

VII. The Desertion

Though it was nearly noon, the glider drones -- a whole fleet of them, hovering on standby -- nearly blocked the sun. To Chicago the skimming shadows and dappled light made it seem as though the camp was underwater, and she felt like she was drowning. In the distance there was a grinding noise that increased in volume from time to time, accompanied by flashes of violet light. The enemy had accepted the challenge and they drew nearer.

“I’m afraid,” Chicago whispered to Reykjavik.

“Don’t think it. Don’t say it,” Reykjavik cautioned her. “It hinders unlimited engagement.”

That could only be a good thing, Chicago thought. Limited engagement brought attacks from a physical enemy. It was possible to operate by instinct and reflex, in spite of fear. But during unlimited engagement the enemy would attempt to invade each and every mind, and fear would aid their entry. Chicago thought about the battleground of thought and shuddered convulsively. She looked at the terrier, lying with his forepaws over his nose. She looked at Mombasa, who had straddled an oddly shaped boulder as though it were a horse, his body slumped forward, his eyes closed, an unlit cigarette dangling from his hand. She looked at the gargolith, which blinked a coded signal through one unshuttered blue glass eye.

“I’m afraid, and I can’t engage,” Chicago whispered, and with her left hand she sought the end of the paladin medic’s tunic cord. A sharp tug yielded no results. His eyes were open but unblinking, and his breathing was irregular. He was fully occupied, as was everyone, with the attempt at unlimited engagement.

Chicago bit the seal from the end of a tranquil-tube. She drank the viscous liquid, with its taste of stale lemonade. A safe bug was attracted by the smell. The bugs couldn’t drink relaxant, but they took the tubes to use them the way a crab will use a snail’s discarded shell. Chicago liked the safe bugs, and she held out her hand, hoping to coax the bug to take the tube from her palm. It did so. Then it startled, dropped the tube, and pinched her hand on the fleshy mound beside her thumb before burrowing below the surface of the porous soil. Alarmed, Chicago watched her hand swell and redden. Then it began to hurt, and tears filled her eyes. If she couldn’t endure a bug bite, unlimited engagement was impossible.

After a few more agonizing minutes, she thrust her hand in front of the paladin medic’s face and said, “I’m afraid. I can’t go on with this.” He focused his eyes and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He took a vial from his shirt pocket and sprinkled a white powder on the swelling. He handed her a capsule and said, “Swallow it dry.” It was difficult, but she did it. Then she said, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid.” The paladin medic blew a whistle, shrilly, and when the gargolith raised a blue-gray limb, he shouted, “We have a deserter. Cease unlimited engagement.”

Mombasa sighed and slid off the boulder. Reykjavik came to Chicago’s side and said, “You’re not a deserter. You can’t be.” She was crying, Chicago could see. The grinding sound began to fade and the flashes of violet light grew dimmer and dimmer as the enemy withdrew.

“The deserter prevented unlimited engagement,” the gargolith said. Three sledge-drones appeared on the ridge and slid down to the encampment, accompanied by a terrible grinding of metal on stone. “One desertion. Limited engagement,” the gargolith said as it mounted a drone.

“I’m afraid,” Chicago said to the paladin medic.

“You’re done for,” he answered without looking up from his casebook. Then he explained to her the nature of the charges. She looked at the others, but no one would meet her eyes.

“There must be a trial,” the gargolith said. “Right away. But first get rid of these bugs.” For the bugs had begun to gather as though they were appraising the prisoner, waiting for what would soon be dispatched.

VIII. Dog’s Life

When Mombasa thrust a cigarette through the reality gap in the drill bars, Chicago grasped it eagerly, even though she didn’t smoke. She knew he couldn’t hear her, but she thanked him anyway. On the cigarette, she could see the words “Dog’s Life” and beside them a small group of numbers that were Mombasa’s favorite primes. She knew he had taken a great risk in bringing her this gift; Chicago was in ethical quarantine, and even the dogs were supposed to stay clear of her.

Soon afterward, a court gargolith entered, its blue-gray flesh oiled and shining, its clove-and-turpentine scent especially sharp. It backed itself against the wall and uncoiled part of its apparatus. On a small shelflike projection in its underbody, there was a glass cup half-filled with pure crude. The gargolith began, rudely Chicago thought, to oil its under parts.

“We have a problem with you,” the gargolith said. This was followed by some clicking noises that came faster and closer together until they sounded like static. Then the gargolith said, “The enemy has succumbed.”

“That’s good news,” Chicago said cautiously.

The gargolith blinked its third and deep-red eye. “Good but not for you. You are a deserter and a coward, and you must endure a half-death.”

“What does that mean?” Chicago asked. She looked at her prosthetic foot, the one she had gotten in the Fire Zone, and wondered what it must be like to be that way all over. “Either I’m dead or I’m not.”

“But that’s not true. There’s death by intention -- we can kill you outright. But there’s also death by interference -- we can alter your identity beyond hope. There’s death by dream -- we can overlay your sleep. There’s death by abnormality -- we can deviate you. There’s death by wood and splinter, by electromechanical failure, by heat and hail. We can break or augment you, trance or omit you. There’s death by holding pattern, death by archipelago and vast continent. We can re-map your existence, reframe the longest wave length your life can emit.” The gargolith paused after this long speech and drew in a massive quantity of air, making a hissing sound as it did so. “And then there’s death by irretrievability.”

“Which means?”

“You will be lost to us.”

“Lost?” Chicago echoed, but the gargolith had already slid from the cell, leaving a pungent scent in its wake. The reality gap was eliminated at that point, and Chicago’s isolation was complete.

Escape was unlikely. The shapeless white garment into which she was sealed was shot through with sonar thread that broadcast her location in a continuous pulsed code. Any movement, even from one end of the cubicle to another, was sent on upper and lower martial frequencies. She refused rations and drank the green water that collected under the ventilation shaft in the hope that it would make her sick enough to be investigated, but this did not occur.

Because sleep phase was restored in her cell, she took advantage of it. She dreamed incessantly about the summer when she was running a virtual opportunity store on the banks of a meltwater pond, and she woke time and time again, her prosthesis itching and her hair plastered to her forehead with sweat. The silence was profound, the light unvarying, the sight of herself in the crystaldome too intimate to bear.

And then one day, the drill bars opened again, and the court gargolith entered. “We have elaborated your half-death and are ready to achieve it. You see there is a paradox that has confounded us. You showed cowardice in refusing to engage, yet in refusing so insistently you showed courage. So how to punish this cowardly courage and courageous cowardice? Soon the punishment will suit the crime. You will stay here, keeping watch, and subtly open this world to our desires. In that way your cowardice will be your undoing as your courage benefits us.”

Chicago’s protest was drowned by a vibration that splintered the drill bars and a noise that trembled her bones. She began to build a chance matrix. “Praise 1,567.” She saw ships on the ground and ships in the sky. “Praise 43.” She saw Mombasa, his face distorted. “Praise 67.” She saw Reykjavik, weeping. “Praise 149.” She saw the paladin medic, impassive. “Praise 113.” She saw the gargolith, insistent. “Praise 3,253.” She heard the turbines and saw the troops rushing. “Praise 7. 5. 3.” Chance would not be appeased. “Praise 71.” She wondered about what was unseen. “Praise 499.” Walls shattered and fell inward. “Praise 7,877.” The world took her in its grip. “Praise 2.” She thought: My fear is not a secret courage. “Praise 83.” She thought: My courage is not a mockery of fear. “Praise 5,347.” She saw that, free of their collars and howling at the sky, the dogs had been left to bear witness.