The Work of Wolves
by Tegan Moore
I am a good dog.
The scent trails are already as broken by the wind as the apocalyptic neighborhoods they lead through, and smoke from a fire half a mile southeast adds another layer of complexity. Following one trail is like following the roots of a plant wound tight together in the dirt.
No, better: It is like sorting through the fallen trees after this storm. Difficult to tell where one tree begins and the other ends, what belongs to what, and where the different parts are from.
That’s a very good Is Like. I save it to keep it with my other good ones.
The sector clear, I send the final readings back to Carol via DAT. She’s behind me with the field assistant, standing on the hood of a car. I can hear the distant, quiet tick of her DAT receipt.
“Sera,” she calls out, “slow down and stay within my visual range.”
Carol should hurry and follow me per standard procedure instead of yelling from the hood of a wrecked car. I don’t have time to wait for her.
Barometric pressure dropping, I ping back to her DAT. I see her hand touch the receiver in her ear from the corner of my eye as I trace the foundation where a prefabricated house once stood. Significant enough to indicate further storms approaching.
“Sera,” my DAT says, but I also hear Carol’s voice carry over the rubble field of tangled two-by-four framing, shingles peeled from rooftops, tatters of furniture, and twisted textiles. She struggles down from the car into the wreckage. “Stay in range, goddammit. Slow down!”
Carol is now too far away to direct or even accompany my search. I don’t need her direction, but the more distance between us, the greater the chance of a missed opportunity. She is slow, perhaps deliberately slow. What does that indicate? Will this also negatively impact the speed at which she acknowledges my alert?
I jump up on an intact retaining wall where I can catch the breeze’s fresh edge. From here it’s easier to see the destruction for what it was before the storm: broken stumps where dogs might have lifted their legs, sidewalks where bicycles and skateboards ruckle-d along, driveways. Here and there a few houses stand, debris piled at their foundations. In a few days those piles will become a haven for rats and mice.
In the distance there are a few humans, non-targets I’ve already cleared from my cache. People who lived here, who now pick through the storm’s detritus. I want to give them an Is Like, but there’s no time. I am working. My priority is to do the best job possible.
I turn my nose to the wind.
The cool air that sucks past the moisture in my nostrils is busy with stories, directions, convoluted half-finished conversations. My vision fuzzes out, becomes irrelevant. Sound snaps through here and there, but I am thinking now with my olfactory bulb:
Broken power line burn reaching this way fitfully due to unpredictable wind pattern shifts
Torn sod broken grass wet turned soil chemicals down further raw sewage must be septic systems in some of these prefab units but trapped not seeping yet
Old human-trails anxiety adrenaline panic the lingering scent of cadaver which has been removed not my target
Broken concrete split shredded pine timber sodden plywood soaked furniture batting
Burst of char as the burn kicks up on the wind then turns back in on itself
The detritus of wind distance age broken-down-ness places happenings irrelevant
North very faint filtered through quite a bit of green sap fresh branches downed trees but
I ping Carol. Interest. Mark location, north northwest. I take another deep suck of air through my nose to confirm. This way.
“Wait for support.” Even over the DAT, Carol sounds out of breath.
I can’t wait. I need to do my job. Carol and Devin the field assistant can find me via the DAT’s GPS. I must follow this hint of Girl.
Through a hedge and I’ve already lost the scent, but in a moment a memory of Girl passes on the air, and my head turns toward the smell so rapidly it tweaks a muscle in my neck before my body can follow. I am moving as quickly as my nose will allow, every step picked out for me by the scent and what it says I should do.
The world fades to almost nothing, just my nose and the scent and stimulus-response, until a semi looses a roar from twenty meters away and jerks me back into audio/visual.
I have been following cyclone fencing along a housing development’s edge. The storm has punched through the fence in places, and beyond the openings, cars on the interstate are slowing to gawk at the damage. The semi honks again, trapped behind the slowdown.
Its bellow makes me think about Mack and the way his hot dark blood stank as it spread against the asphalt. I remember feeling in my skin and muscles that I would very much like to roll in that smell. A dog’s instinct. I should not have stopped to look at him when it happened, but I needed confirmation he was dead.
Irrelevant to my current search. I shake my head to clear wind-driven grit from my eyes and turn into the current again, reaching. I ping Carol my location—a reminder only, she knows how to find me—then hunt the wind.
It is still there, but its story is conflicted; the stream of its path, eddies and pools and lines all broken by the weather, a puzzle of color and feel. Perhaps a human with a computer might be able to map parts of the puzzle out. But time and movement have danced and shivered and jolted and coughed these trails out of the human spectrum of sense.
Dogs are better than machines at untangling this kind of mess. But all this broken human detritus, and the storms growing greater and more frequent now year by year, and the endless desire for more perfect work: these things make the job too tricky for a dog’s nose. A normal dog’s, at least.
This is why I am the solution. It’s why I am a good dog, better than Mack was. It’s why Carol should do things my way.
Carol’s voice carries over the DAT. “Devin and I are a hundred yards out. If the trail crosses the freeway, Sera, do not follow. That’s an order.”
Before I can respond, the wind twists through my nostrils: Girl.
That trickle of target scent wraps itself around my olfactory center. My target is my primary objective. I send Carol my heading as I run, an automatic part of my brain remembering fieldwork directives. I am required to communicate relevant information to my handler, but I am only required to follow handler commands within reason. I find very few of my handler commands reasonable today.
Deep in the scent cone now, I hardly see, not thinking with that part of my mind. Scent is brighter than any color in this muted, cloud-heavy weather. It is a viscous, thickened path, easy to follow. I can turn my head now and I don’t lose the trail, but feel it pull and contort through time and space. It strengthens this way, grades off in the other, torques around on itself. I know that if it was untwisted it would move differently. I understand how it bent and broke over time. It is all a trick of the wind.
I come to an eddy. A lesser dog—a normal dog, like Mack—would hesitate or lose themselves. I move through the scent-trap and scrabble over a broken segment of roof. The trail shimmers on the other side, where the ground is cool and sodden beneath my paw pads.
Five yards further, an oscillation in the wind unfolds back through time and I move with it through a heavy stand of pines, thick with bright acid resin smell. I have my teeth in it, I can feel the track itch behind my
Indication, I ping. I push beneath a wind-felled pine and its broken-wood smells. Needles brush against my face. Target scent strong.
Carol’s voice: “Where are you?”
Question irrelevant. She has GPS access.
Twist of track to the left through
Old Girl smell relevant
Other child smells a broad collection of small human life scents in this patch of forest
Broken boards rotting garbage leaf mold
I step up and over another felled tree rich smell of rot and my ears move on their own because there is human sound close by I push my head deep into the space beneath the tree with the old smells and the deep Girl smell and
Target acquired primary objective
I am a good dog
Target Girl wheezes quietly she says “Help” I breathe her scent deeply
But will Carol
“Acknowledged,” Carol responds. “On our way.”
I am a good dog
I send Carol my GPS coordinates again to reconfirm even though I can see from the DAT that she is approximately one hundred yards across the rubble field.
“Help me, doggy,” target Girl says. Her voice sounds like the wind, soft and leaky. That’s a good Is Like. The rot-scented tree pins her in a rubble of boards and magazines and a blanket in a dense stand of brush and pines, some distance from the neighborhood. Her one small free hand reaches for my mud-slicked head. “Good doggy,” she says. “I’m stuck. Help.”
In this dense visual screen it may be difficult for my team to locate me. I back out of the target Girl’s location and head toward the forest’s edge.
“Doggy,” she whispers. “Wait, doggy, no, wait.” There’s a gurgle to her wheeze, perhaps a punctured lung. Which is why she can’t cry for help, at this distance from habitation. She is likely in dire physical danger. Only an EI dog could have found her so quickly.
I trot out of the stand of pines and up onto the nearest high ground—a culvert near the road. I can hear target Girl now, since I am listening for her. “Come back,” she sobs. “Doggy, help. Please. Come back.”
Her weak voice will be easy for my excellent ears to locate for my team.
Alert, I ping again, though I don’t need to. I allow myself a nice wag.
I am a good dog.
* * *
Sound carries strangely in storm-thickened air. From my place in the command tent I can clearly hear the baying voice of some small hound at least a mile away. However, the generator running out behind the team’s trucks sounds like it belongs to another time and place, and wind chokes the traffic noise from the freeway. I can still hear the difference between trucks like Carol’s and the smaller cars, and the sounds of big semi trucks like the one that hit and killed Mack. I know the sounds of those trucks well.
I lie with my head on my paws so that I look like I am resting and not eavesdropping. Overhead the wind rips at the surface of the command tent roof, which ripples and bucks. It is like there is a giant dog up there, digging and worrying at it, trying to get in.
Not a bad Is Like.
Is Like is a game I made up at ESAC. I didn’t make it all up myself; my trainer Dacy taught me the beginning. Though what Dacy taught me wasn’t quite the same. She taught me that “sit in the training center” Is Like “sit in the parking lot” and “find the box with this smell” Is Like “find the person with this smell.” So Dacy gave me the idea. I made up the part where I keep playing it forever in my head.
The way I play the game, it isn’t always about training. It doesn’t even have to be about real things. It can just be about thoughts. It keeps my mind busy when Carol leaves me in my crate, or tied to something, like I am now.
“I won’t do this anymore,” I hear Carol say to Anders, our team leader. She stands with her back to me on the far side of the command tent, well within my hearing range. I can tell she’s angry by context and by her elevated blood pressure, but I don’t know why. The search was successful and finished quickly. Our team performed well. Since Mack has been dead for almost two months now, the changes I had hoped to see in Carol’s behavior have slowly surfaced as she begins to forget how she used to work with Mack and learns, instead, how to work with me. She is a slow student, but there is still progress.
Medics load the target Girl into an ambulance in the parking lot. I hear a trio of vulture drones descending to snatch video of the gurney. The hair on my neck prickles with dislike. I am not afraid of drones. I simply find that they occupy the “uncanny valley.” Uncanny valley is a concept that Dacy told me about that means “both too much and not enough like me, and therefore unsettling.” Dacy also warned me many humans have the same uncomfortable reaction to EI animals.
I don’t know why, when I look exactly like a medium-yellow Labrador retriever. Yellow Labrador retrievers test extremely well with the public. When a Labrador finds a disaster victim, the positive cultural associations the victim has with the breed comforts them. Yellow is the best color, as well, because in dark areas I am easily identifiable. This is information that I learned on Modanet, after Dacy told me about Labrador retrievers when I was a puppy.
However, human reactions to dogs can be unpredictable. For example, the way they treated Mack. He often gave the team physical attention they didn’t want. Mack was smart for a normal dog, so I wonder why he chose to ignore their requests. They said things like, “eww, Mack, get your slobbery Kong off of me, you dork,” and “mind your own business, you big oaf.” Wouldn’t the humans on team like him more if he complied? He didn’t even have the excuse of being a yellow Labrador; he was an overlarge German shepherd with a dark and heavy face. Dark German shepherds don’t test nearly as well with the public, so I am not sure why everyone liked him so much.
“I’m done,” Carol says. “Retire me, I’m serious. Take me off the roster, Anders. No more searches.”
“Carol,” Anders says.
“No. I don’t want to argue with you about this.” She gestures toward me without looking. “This isn’t what I spent the last twenty years doing. I don’t like this future.”
“Come on. It’s a training problem,” he says. “You can teach her to work closer to you.”
“That defeats the point of the EI!” Carol tosses her radio onto the folding table. “But you know what, it is a training problem. She’s training me for EI SAR work, and I don’t want to do it.”
“Excuse me, please,” says a man. I look up at him. He stands just outside the tent and smells nicely of spicy food. He holds a camera and wears a press pass around his neck. He calls to my teammates. “Can I get a couple shots of the dog and handler?”
Anders looks at Carol. Carol sighs, steps over a cooler toward me, and unhooks my leash from the folding table’s leg. I wag at the journalist to make a good impression.
He looks at me curiously.
“It’s Enhanced, isn’t it?” he asks. “The dog?”
Carol casts a look over her shoulder to Anders. It’s Carol’s job to talk about me to the press because she is my handler, but she’s never seemed enthusiastic about the job. She’s particularly hesitant in this moment. I can feel her desire to cross the command tent and finish her conversation, but Anders is already busy with his tablet and radio. The tension between the two of them is unusual.
“Sera?” says Devin from outside the tent.
The man with the camera, who may have also sensed the tension, looks at Devin with relief. Carol does too. I am good at reading human expressions; it’s one of the things they teach at ESAC.
“She’s Enhanced Intelligence, yeah,” Devin says. “First EI SAR dog in the field in the US. First non-military EI dog doing anything, actually.”
The photographer looks confused. “Sar?”
“Sorry. Search-and-Rescue. This is Sera’s seventh find already, and she’s only been on the team for half a year. Some dogs don’t make that record in a lifetime.”
The man taps something on his camera and points it at me. Carol kneels beside me in the pose we do for all our pictures and I look at the camera and open my mouth so my tongue shows and I look like the dogs people have at home and they will relate to me. “Search dogs don’t find people that often?” the man asks. There’s a series of ticks and flashes.
“Well, we train all the time, but we don’t deploy that often. Three, four times a year usually. These storms, though.” Devin shrugs. “It’s been insane. SAR teams in from all over the region. Law enforcement, military, everybody’s working the cleanup and rescue ops.”
The man nods in a big, knowing gesture. He’s ignoring Carol now. “What’s the dog’s name?”
“Sera. S-E-R-A, for Serendipity. And that’s Carol Ramos there, one of the team founders and the best dog handler in the Midwest.”
Carol rises from her photo-pose crouch and hooks my leash back to the table. She says “Nice to meet you,” to the man, and turns. My gaze follows hers; Anders has left the command tent.
“Thanks,” the man calls as she walks away. Carol raises a hand but doesn’t answer.
Devin steps toward me and pats my side. I lean away from the physical contact, but give him a conciliatory wag. He talks with the photographer for a few more minutes, but I am not listening.
Instead I watch Carol find Anders next to his van and continue their discussion—their argument. I strain my hearing, but the stormy sound patterns intrude. Instead I hear wind picking up as the barometric pressure continues to drop, softening the hush-wash growling of the interstate; intruding human voices, high and yelping; the sounds of urban life—traffic, the percussion of comings and goings and doings, dogs and kids and shouts—held at a remove by the perimeter of the storm’s destruction. I hear no wildlife. Wild animals don’t emerge in weather like this.
The man leaves and Devin drops into Carol’s portable chair and puts his feet up on the cooler. He looks at me and smiles. I want to follow Carol, but I am hooked to the table and even though I could drag the table with no trouble or just unhook myself (my teeth and tongue are very dexterous) I know that when someone hooks a leash to something, it’s because they want the dog to stay. I stay.
Carol shakes her head at Anders. She gestures in the air with one hand. Anders tries to put his hands on her shoulders, but she uses the gesturing hand to brush him away. She looks out, across the line of parked cars and the staging area and the tented command center, and she looks at me. Anders looks at me too.
I don’t know what to do while they are looking at me like that. I am usually good at reading human expressions, but I need context in order to do it with accuracy.
What context do I have? Why are they arguing? The search ended in a successful find, the victim alive and our team uninjured. I count this search an even greater success personally, because Carol acknowledged my remote alert within the fifteen-second optimal feedback window. It was an ideal handler response, and a great improvement on our previous find record. On our last deployment find Carol didn’t acknowledge my alert for 3:57:12, nearly sixteen times the optimal feedback number.
Carol often waits until she’s in visual range to acknowledge my alert. This can take anywhere from twenty seconds to two minutes or more. Continuing to work Mack reinforced her habit of visually acknowledging her dogs’ alerts. In fact, working with Mack appeared to make Carol entirely refuse the superior methods that I learned at ESAC. But Mack is no longer a factor. This time Carol’s acknowledgment was appropriate.
I review my log in the DAT and confirm that all my own behaviors were within acceptable parameters. I find no anomalies.
The tenor of Carol’s voice carries, but the wind blurs her words. Her posture is stiff and forward, her gestures tight. She glances again across the sprawling staging area at me. Carol’s body language indicates that she’s angry. I think she’s angry at me.
Carol is often angry at me.
Carol frequently avoids eye contact with me. She doesn’t speak to me much other than issuing cues and commands, even though she often spoke to Mack. She doesn’t initiate physical contact. She doesn’t throw a Kong on a rope for me when we do search drills and she doesn’t tell me I am a genius or a screwball and she doesn’t laugh at me when I roll on an excellent smell in the grass, all of which she did for Mack.
She doesn’t say, “You’re a good dog, Sera.” Instead she says, “good work.”
Carol doesn’t seem to like me.
To be successful in the field, a dog and handler team must communicate well. They must be well-trained, focused on their job, and physically fit. I haven’t found anything on Modanet that indicates that they must like each other.
My own feelings on this subject are, I suppose, irrelevant.
* * *
The wind’s roar outside the hotel windows wakes me from troubled sleep. I am in my crate. In the bed, the dark shapes of Carol and Devin breathe shallowly. When Devin came to the door earlier Carol told him that she didn’t want to talk, but they did talk. They talked about the find today and about the storms. They talked about Mack and his bad and strange behaviors. They laughed and Devin got them both tissues from the bathroom. Then they stopped talking, and their biometrics changed, and now they sleep.
I need rest to recover from the hard work of my search, but today’s events haunt me. Carol said no more searches. She said retirement. If Carol retires will I retire with her? I am only three years old.
I check Modanet. All listed retirement dates for SAR dogs are either concurrent with or prior to the retirement dates of their handlers. There is, of course, no information about EI SAR dogs, because I am the first one.
Corresponding information about military and defense EI dog career dates is not available on Modanet.
I remember what Devin said to the photographer earlier, about all of my finds. How some dogs don’t make that record in a lifetime.
The barometric pressure dips, indicating an increased likelihood of funnel clouds forming. It’s not a dramatic fall. While I consider whether to ping Carol’s DAT with the information, the radio bleats.
A surge of adrenaline twitches my muscles. When the radio goes my heart rate always increases. Unexpected radio calls might mean a search.
Carol shifts first in the bed, breathing pattern changing. The radio squalls again and then both she and Devin are coming quickly awake.
Carol sits up in the dark. She taps the radio screen and says, “Ramos here.”
I have a difficult time understanding voices over radio. I always have. When I was still at ESAC Dacy explained this is a common handicap among dogs and not something to be concerned about. It is, however, frustrating that I can only understand broadcast voices transmitted over DAT and not what’s being said right now.
A voice—masculine, likely Anders’—speaks briefly. Carol and Devin look at each other in the dark. “No, it’s fine. Just . . . we’ll talk.” Carol says. Devin slides out of bed, gestures on the bedside light and begins gathering his belongings. “Here? Uh, okay. Two-oh-four. Yeah, five minutes.”
Devin mutters under his breath. Carol shuffles into the bathroom. He waits a few seconds for her to come back out, but I can sense that he is impatient. “Carol?” he says.
“Why are you still here? Anders is coming. To my room for some reason. You’ll probably be on this call-out, too, you know.”
“Lord Jesus,” Devin says, and slips his shoes on. He leaves while Carol’s still in the bathroom and pulls the door closed quietly behind him. The shower runs. It stops less than a minute before I hear someone in the hallway. I already know that it’s Anders because I can smell him.
This is a unique occurrence. Devin often visits Carol’s room when the team is out on training or deployment, but Anders never has. I don’t think it will be for the same reason.
Carol exits the bathroom fully dressed, rubbing her wet hair with a towel. She opens the door.
“Sorry to intrude,” Anders says. He looks like he would like to leave again. His posture Is Like a cat’s when it is suspicious of danger, stiff and still.
Carol moves around the room, putting items in her pack. She pulls her hair back with one hand and fastens it behind her head. “You don’t need to come up here to convince me to go out,” she says. “I’ll finish this deployment. But after this—”
“Actually,” Anders says, “I’m here to convince you of something else entirely. Well, both things, really.”
I wish Carol would let me out of my crate. Her movement makes me want to move around, too, to find my work harness and bring it to her and wait by the door.
Instead Carol stops moving. “What?”
Anders takes a few steps into the room. “This call,” he says, He’s quiet for a second. “It’s not a—it’s not part of the storm system. It’s not even a rescue search. It’s . . .” He is quiet again.
“Wow,” Carol says. “Now I really can’t wait.”
“It’s a security call,” Anders says. “The police or the military should handle it with their own EI units, but,” he looks at me. “Sera’s the closest EI dog. Geographically, I mean. All the defense EI units they could call on are deployed further south to deal with the storms, the weather has shut down all of the air traffic that could get them back here to do this, and time is . . . there isn’t a lot of time. A few units are trying to get up here but they’ve been delayed already. Sera’s the only one in range.”
Carol bends down to pull on her boots. “She’s not defense, she’s SAR.”
“You know she’s capable,” Anders says, and his voice is scolding. He’s right. “She can do whatever work you ask her to.”
“So it’s Sera you need, not me.”
“You’re her handler,” he says. “We need you both.”
Carol mutters, “She doesn’t need a handler, she needs IT support.”
Anders looks at his feet and fills his lungs. “You’re still the most qualified person to—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Carol says. She zips up her pack and slings it onto one shoulder. “I don’t want the job. I don’t like where all this is going. You know what, I wish it had been the robots that took over. It wouldn’t sting as much as getting put out on my ass by my own damn dog.”
Anders watches her, waiting.
“Shut up,” Carol says, even though Anders has said nothing. “Yes, this is partly about losing Mack. And no it won’t get better after more time has passed, because it’s not just about losing Mack.” She points at me. “All our next dogs are going to be like that. The work has changed but I haven’t.”
“Technology changes things,” Anders says. “I can’t make you evolve with the field. I can’t force you to. But Sera’s still a dog, Carol, and the work is still the work.”
“It’s not,” she says. “You used to build a connection. You and the dog, you’d get inside each other’s brains. Feel each other’s feelings. It was all connection. Connection was the point. This damn thing,” she lifts her wrist where my DAT is integrated, “skips all of that. It takes away the part of the work I loved most.”
“Okay,” Anders says. He puts his hands up and steps back toward the door. “Okay, Carol, I’m not arguing with you. Not now, at least. This search isn’t just a life at stake, it’s national security. Can you and Sera do it and we’ll talk about your future afterward?”
Carol finally unlatches my crate. It’s difficult to wait inside until she releases me. When she does, I scramble across the carpet to my harness as fast as I can. “Let’s just finish this so I can go home and lick my wounds,” she says.
* * *
We drive for an hour in Devin’s truck, Carol with her feet on the dash, as light seeps into the sky from the east. It’s a low, stormy morning, and it lacks the normal happy anticipation of driving to a deployment. This silence is tense. Devin tries to ask Carol about retirement again, like he did last night, but she ignores him.
I wish Carol would answer his questions. I want to know, too. And I want Devin to ask, what about your dog? What will Sera do after you retire? I want him to demand an answer, because I have no idea what will happen to me when Carol quits SAR.
I can’t ask her the question myself. Carol doesn’t like talking to me.
At ESAC, before I was sent out to my field assignment, Dacy warned me that I would need to watch out for humans who were uncomfortable with EI. That the new technology made many people nervous and unhappy. That, if I suspected I was interacting with a person for whom the Uncanny Valley was too wide, I should pretend that I was more like a regular dog in order to help them feel comfortable.
I don’t think Dacy suspected that she was talking about my future handler. I certainly did not consider the possibility until it was too late. But Carol is more uncomfortable with me than anyone else I have encountered. She has improved; I no longer smell fear in her discomfort. Still, her discomfort remains.
Dacy told me to be a dog as much as I could. It’s difficult, because although I am a dog in some ways, I am also something else. With Carol, I’m forced to keep that something else to myself. I speak only when I must, usually when we are working. I don’t know if it makes Carol like me any more.
The tires on the roadway make a regular, soothing hum broken occasionally by the ucka-ucka of a seam in the asphalt. A light rain ticks against the windshield. Carol and Devin breathe and sigh and move in their seats. I lick my nose once, yawn loudly. A biological dog stress response. If only the humans on my team read my signals as closely as I read theirs.
I don’t think about Dacy often, but today I wonder what advice she would give to me. She didn’t know much about SAR, but she was good at teaching me about people.
Devin slows the truck, and our tires crunch gravel. I sit up and look out from my crate and see tall fencing running outside the windows. I hear the engine of a truck like Devin’s that is behind us slow and also turn onto the gravel, and several smaller cars that must be the police escort vehicles. The second truck must mean that there are additional SAR team members in our caravan, but I did not see them before we left. We grind along a narrow driveway. Sitting up in my backseat crate, I can see a small gatehouse and the pair of silent police cruisers blocking the road.
The truck’s engine falls silent. In the void I hear a faint buzzing overhead. I place it immediately. A drone, likely a police drone that tracked our progress here along with the escort. The sound of it is like an itch inside my head, where I can’t reach it. It is like the feeling before a sneeze.
Good one. I add that to my Is Like list.
The other truck pulls ahead of us. From inside it I hear Anders’ voice.
Anders. That is highly unusual. As team leader, Anders stays at base, remotely managing his deployed teams, resources, requests, and instructions from first responders, and other vital details. Yet he followed us out to this deployment.
The gate rattles open, and a cruiser starts up to make room for us to pass. The buzz of the overhead drone grows louder, and when I look I can see it black against the low clouds, like an insect scurrying across a ceiling.
We drive for a few more minutes with little to spy out the windows except more wet, stubbly fields and the occasional outbuilding. We pass another roadblock, but its cruisers are already pulled aside. I see smokestacks and low, featureless buildings.
A hum is building in the earth. It makes the hair on my spine stand up. By the time we pull up to the buildings and their looming smokestacks, the vibrations are in my bones and my stomach, and I feel cold all over from my hair prickling.
When our convoy stops, I am the only one left behind in the car. Through my crate’s vent holes I watch Carol and Anders and Devin whipped by the wind as they follow a pair of dark-clad workers into a building.
My job right now is to rest, gathering mental and physical energy for the work that will come. But the unnerving vibration and the thoughts that have plagued me since yesterday prevent my resting.
Carol doesn’t like the DAT. She doesn’t like me. She prefers the old way of dog-handler teamwork, the dog giving imperfect feedback through body language and the handler interpreting signals as best they could. She likes the inefficiency because, to her, it felt like connection.
The DAT connects my mind directly to her, but that’s not the kind of connection she means.
I have no Is Like for the kind of connection she means.
Why would she prefer inefficient work and unclear communication when EI is, objectively, better? I don’t understand. But I do want to continue to work. Being good at my job is as important to me as connection is to Carol.
How can both purposes be served?
Footsteps approach the truck, but it’s Anders who opens the door. A woman is with him, wearing dark clothing composed in the same practical, tidy way that the SAR team members dress. Anders unlatches my crate, leashes me without hurry. He knows better than to pat me. Everyone in our SAR unit should know I don’t enjoy it, but Anders has the self-control to restrain himself where even Devin does not. I hop down from the truck at his invitation.
We’re in a gravel lot in the middle of a rain-beaten prairie. Enormous steam vents rise from the earth, trickling metallic-scented exhaust. A breeze snatches past my nose carrying broken-stem, crushed-herb, fresh-dirt smells whipped about with a fresh whiff of ozone. After such a tense hour in the stuffy truck, a face full of bright air is exhilarating.
Another man in dark clothing watches us from outside the door my team disappeared into. He scans the area through thick, military-issue e-glasses.
“This is Sera,” Anders says to the woman. “Sera, this is Angela Weil. She’s in charge of the search and wanted to meet you.”
I understand his speech without DAT help—regular dog brains can hear the shapes of language, even if they don’t understand it like I do—but I can’t respond. Only Carol has the integrated neural pathway for my DAT. I sit for a polite hello in lieu of more complicated language.
“She says hi,” Anders interprets.
Angela reaches a hand toward my head. She smells overpoweringly of personal cleaning products, stringent chemical odors that Modanet says mimic appealing plant smells to the feeble human nose. I try not to flinch away from her touch.
“You’re confident her SAR training won’t interfere with the search objectives?”
Anders shakes his head. “ESAC stock starts with the same specs your dogs do. They’re just brought up differently.”
Angela grabs and gently kneads my ear. I hold my sit carefully, but cast Anders a baleful look. He catches my eye and looks away.
“It will take a certain . . . commitment. To follow through.”
Anders chuckles. “You’ve got the right dog for the job, then.” He crouches down in front of me. Thankfully, Angela backs off, taking her hands with her. “This is a tough one, Sera.” I’ve always liked the way Anders talks to me. He reaches into his front shirt pocket and brings out a memory stick, which he extends to the DAT interface patch worked into my harness. My brain receives a password-protected dossier tagged Access Restricted.
“Difficult parameters, novel search elements, and an unfamiliar environment,” he says. “Subterranean.”
I open my mouth to pant. Anders is giving me a briefing, all on my own. Often all the information I receive from Carol before a search is a scent profile and a police report. I wonder what is in the Access Restricted dossier.
“In addition, you will be required to apprehend the target, not just locate it. Carol will be given limited information. There are things in this file that are very restricted, that you’ll have access to and she won’t. She will know your target, but she won’t have all of the details that you need in order to do your work. You will be required to keep some information private from her. Do you understand?”
He holds out both hands. Right hand for yes, left hand for no. A game the team played with me often when I was new and my intelligence was amusing to them.
I touch my nose to his right palm.
“Okay. Angela will give you the password to open the dossier. Destroy it once you have the information. Don’t store it as data, store it as biological memory. Do you understand?”
Fascinated, I digest this information for half a moment, then I touch my nose to his palm again.
The woman bends over and touches a password to my harness DAT interface. The password winks into my thoughts.
I open the dossier.
A drone drops low overhead. Its insectile buzzing thrums the pit of my stomach. I blink rapidly at the information I have, as though it were before my physical eyes and blinking might bring clarity.
I look at Anders. He is watching me with anxiety. “Do you have questions, Sera?”
I ponder the dossier’s contents. These are no longer stored files, but a part of my lived experience, as though I had witnessed the events or been told them as a story. Fusion plant architectural schematics, plant process schedules—everything from the cleaning schedule to the HVAC layout—and a series of scent profiles including that of the domestic rat and silicon filament.
It is curious information, which joins the unsettled buzz in my stomach. Do I question what Anders has told me? Does it confuse me?
No. I touch his left palm with my nose.
“Great,” Anders says. He straightens up, turns to Angela. “We’re ready.”
We walk toward the building and its growing hum. The steam vents towering overhead are like enormous, dead trees.
Carol waits for us in the hallway of the building, where Anders hands her my lead. The hum is even louder here, a physical sensation more than a sound, and the building smells lived-in: coffee, dish soap, ink and paper, air filters. There is a banana peel in the waste bin of the conference room we are guided into by the sour-smelling Angela.
There are two other dogs in the room, both of which watch me enter. Neither of them are EI. Devin is already here, along with a lot of men and women in dark uniforms.
Carol sits next to Devin, but stares at Anders with the same look she used to give Mack when he sauntered from the kitchen with particular satisfaction. Her brow is wrinkled, her lips pressed into a line. Anders ignores her and stands against the wall behind us.
“What was that about?” Devin asks her, gesturing to me with a knuckle. Carol glances at him and shakes her head.
I have a traitorous thought. I could share my information with Carol, in confidence—all of it, or part of it, or even none of it, but tell a believable lie. Perhaps this would help Carol feel connection with me.
I analyze this idea. The more I ponder it, the more it seems like it wouldn’t work. Secret though the information might be, it’s dull stuff. Schedules, scents, maps. And Carol might not like that I told her. I set the thought aside for now and listen to the briefing. I need to know what Carol knows.
Angela presents some information I already have from my dossier: We currently sit atop the Midwestern Fusion Array, third-largest fusion energy generator in the world; yesterday at 9:35 p.m. MFA security detected a communication systems breach, and shortly after that lost control of systems below the third basement including most automated support systems and all drone controls; shortly after this a physical security breach occurred and Array security apprehended two men and a woman just inside the northeasternmost access building; these three, upon police questioning, offered a prepared manifesto from the Strong Arm of the Voice For the Silent.
“No shit,” whispers Devin. Angela looks at him sharply. A dog handler on the other side of the table laughs out loud.
“What,” the handler says, “is this power plant full of monkeys and guinea pigs? The hell are they doing down there?”
Angela turns her glare to the speaker and clears her throat. “The manifesto alleges that their goal is a catastrophic shut-down of the Array.” The dog handler snorts, and Angela’s expression scrunches up even more. “And it would be catastrophic, I assure you. Once the Array is down, it takes at least sixty hours to get it back up to 50 percent operational. The MFA powers the entirety of seven states and supplies the majority of power for six more. Nearly a quarter of the U.S. Worse, many of the areas served are currently in a state of emergency due to the storm systems some of you have been cleaning up after. People need to charge their cars so they can leave flooded areas or relocate from damaged homes. They need safe places to shelter. Hospitals need to be fully operational. This is a serious issue.”
The man says nothing, and I am relieved at his silence.
“The Strong Arm,” Angela continues, “should also not be dismissed. Despite their slipshod public reputation, their radicalized membership has nearly doubled in the last five years. They have funding. They’re efficient. They may have been hippies, cat ladies, and college vegans ten years ago, but that’s no longer the story. In the last two years, the Strong Arm of the Voice for the Silent has perpetrated several attacks against high-profile companies and organizations that were not widely publicized. The organization also never officially claimed responsibility. If they’re staying quiet about it, then they have some other motivation than fear, panic, and publicity. And if they aren’t bringing attention to this stuff, we certainly won’t. An ecoterror panic is low on our list of useful epidemics at the moment.”
“People will definitely notice if the power goes out in a fourth of America,” says a woman on the other side of the table.
Angela does not scowl at her the way she scowled at the man. “They will,” she agrees. “They’re changing their game. We aren’t sure why yet, but it’s concerning.”
“But,” Devin says, “you caught them. They hacked into your computer systems, sure. But what are we searching for?”
The scent profile appears in the forefront of my thoughts immediately: domestic rat, silicon filament, and something else I can’t place. It’s familiar and makes me think of work, of purpose.
“Approximately one hour ago one of the six reactors in the Array went offline. It was taken offline in an emergency shutdown procedure that could not be stopped due to . . . tampering with the electrical system. Prior to this we had noticed a pattern of small breaches throughout the Array’s internal security systems. We believe the trio we apprehended released something into the Array.”
“A drone,” Carol says. “Shit.”
It’s not just a drone.
Carol spoke quietly, but Angela still heard her. Now Angela stares at Carol. “Yes,” she says. “Most likely a bodydrone. A rat.”
“Jesus,” Carol breathes.
“Huh,” says the dog handler who spoke before. “The hell is VFS doing with a bodydrone?”
“The Strong Arm,” Angela corrects. She continues. “The drone took down Reactor B. We suspect it is now near Reactor C, as Reactor A has been heavily secured. Conventional dog teams will provide relief and backup for the teams already securing Reactor A. We will focus offensive efforts on cutting off the drone before it can cause additional outages—that’s where the EI unit comes in.” Angela looks at Carol. “Reactor D is offline for maintenance. Add B to that, and the Array is currently at 66 percent. Below 50 percent is considered plant failure. Below 33 percent is catastrophic.”
She takes a deep breath and looks around the room, skipping the eyes of the dog handler who spoke too much. “Well,” she says. “Let’s begin.”
Copyright © 2019. The Work of Wolves by Tegan Moore