( This is quite an early Estians/War Dogs story, written long before I started work on Dog Country. The protagonist does have a brief cameo in Dog Country, however. )
It was a long way home. Evran had thought that, thousands and thousands of miles away, back in Tajikistan, before things had hit the wall. Home was nearer for Evran now, though. San Iadras was a big city, but not as big as a country. It was a long walk to the Vista Quays, but that wasn’t nearly as far as the march over the Gissar mountains into Uzbekistan, freezing every step, afraid of patrols and locals and rain.
You couldn’t drink the rain in Tajikistan. He knew that, he knew that because he’d seen people, humans, die drinking the rain water they caught in their hands and drank off their fingers. Just because he wasn’t human that didn’t make him any less afraid. You didn’t have to drink the rain for it to kill you. If it got in your eyes, if you breathed it, if it touched broken skin, the long-life spores from the bombings in Twenty-Sixty could still kill. Just because they had been gengineered to work on human beings, and he’d been gengineered to be anything but human, just to be a cloned dog, that didn’t mean it couldn’t kill him.
The rain in San Iadras was warm and clean and as a kid he’d run around the neighbourhood in it, laughing with his friends after he’d learned to laugh. It had taken about six years after he’d been emancipated for him to start laughing. When he came into town, the first time it had rained those big warm drops that left his fur feeling hot and sticky, as if he sweated the way humans did, he’d hid, trembling, in a tram shelter.
There hadn’t been thunder, it wasn’t so cold that getting wet could give him hypothermia, kill him. The curved glass sheeting had drummed with the big fat wet drops and he’d been afraid, afraid like it was gunfire – though he’d never been afraid of gunfire as a child.
He’d only been afraid of machine guns, the ones that were ramped up past twenty thousand rounds a minute with motors and multiple barrels, after he’d seen what happened to Enzweiler.
There had just been this roaring, almost faster than the hard rain slashing down on the tram shelter, and there was this fog, this wet fog that he couldn’t help breathing in, and parts of Enzweiler were scattered across the ground for about four or five feet, and by that time Evran had gotten his shit together enough to return fire, almost on automatic, just knocking out three of the half-smart grenades in his rifle. The first one found them, the enemy, and the second and third killed them, but not as well as the machine gun had.
They’d all listened on the good ear mikes, the sensitive ones, and heard the machine gun team and the guys with them choking and hacking to death on their own blood, grenade fragments having gone for the heat of their breath, torn open their mouths and throats.
He’d gulped down frantic, fearful breaths, and choked on Enzweiler’s blood in the air, and that’s when he found out he was afraid of machine guns.
There weren’t any machine guns in San Iadras, not in the hands of anyone who’d shoot at him, at any rate. The rain was clean, and as a kid he’d run around in it, laughing, his tail wagging and spraying drops of water all over the house and his adoptive mom had laughed too. She’d been the one to teach him to laugh.
He wanted to go home so badly.
Vista Quays wasn’t far, on foot. Just fifteen miles.
He had the money for a taxi, but he couldn’t shake the stink of burning meat out of his nose every time he looked at one. He walked, and tried to remind himself that he was home. There were skyscrapers, glass and steel piercing up for hundreds of floors and catching the clouds, and rambling villages of homes and shops and stores underground in their foundations, in the cut open canyons between them – a whole level of streets below the streets, another level above them in the walkways crossing over the motorways that were always, always busy.
It was never dark in San Iadras. You couldn’t see the stars, because they were all twinkling down in the city.
In Tajikistan the sky had been wide open and black and empty and threatened to swallow him up with satellite spy-eyes or aerodrones, and the only thing that had kept him sane was that if he died like that it’d be fast, fast like it had been for Enzweiler.
The streets were almost familiar here, but they never were in Tajikistan. In Tajikistan the locals had all wanted him dead, and here they’d feed him if he had the money.
He knew the streets, and tried to convince himself he wasn’t afraid of the thousand windows someone could shoot at him from, and the swathes of people to hate him like he’d been hated in Tajikistan. It was okay. Here he didn’t even get stared at that often. People knew what furries looked like here, they didn’t think they were wrong or evil or anything like that at all. People had even adopted them, as kids, and raised them after the emancipation.
Evran loved his family. He would’ve written home to them every day if he could, but the Tajiks censored the internet. They could post packages, but barely once a week. It wasn’t the same.
He had the money, and the little Polish restaurant in the hollow between two skyscrapers, under the walkways for pedestrians overhead, had the food. And it wasn’t anything like Tajikistan.
It was small, so small, and comfortable, and the people there smiled at him.
The waitress was a girl, about fourteen, way too young but nobody really paid attention to labour laws in San Iadras if there was money to be made and nobody wanted to litigate. She was the daughter of the owners, big fat guy with a jolly smile behind the bar and the wife working the kitchen in the back. They were all the same family, he could smell it even if a human couldn’t.
“Hi,” the waitress said, clutching her order-board awkwardly. “Uhm.” She hesitated, staring at him for awhile, but nicely, kindly. “Uhm. Do you want a seat?”
“Sure,” he said.
They put him near the window, to make the place look busier, attract custom. The seats were steel, but comfortable. The music would have been alien to an outsider, melodious distorted guitars in long choral canons. A calm, civil, neo-classical heavy metal.
He looked over the menu on the table’s screen before gradually becoming aware of the family closing in around him.
The big fat guy, the poppa, flanked by wife and daughter. “Excuse me, you, you don’t know our son, do you? He’s one of your brothers.”
He shook his head, licked his lips unsteadily, ducked his head and flicked his ears. “I don’t know. What’s his name?”
It was hard to look up and face their smiles. They were such a happy family. “Scartho. He was in Tajikistan and-“
“Bolek, hush! The poor boy. What’s your name, my dear?” The wife came up to the table, kneeling beside it kindly.
He pulled the dogtag’s chain out of his shirt and showed it to the family.
“Evran. Such a nice name. Isn’t that a nice name, Bolek?”
The waitress put her order-board down on one of the seats, looked at him desperately. “Do you know my brother, mister? He got out of Tajikistan, he was in quarantine in Uzbekistan but we didn’t hear anything after that.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He packed the dogtag’s chain back into his shirt. “I don’t know him.”
The family looked at each other, disappointed, obviously. “Well. I’m sorry to have bothered you,” the poppa said, swatting the wife back towards the kitchen.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I was there. I understand, I was in Gissar? The mountains?”
He searched their eyes, but they didn’t know what that meant. They had no idea where Gissar was, what happened there, they were normal people, thank fuck. There were still normal people in the world. “If your son got through quarantine, he’s okay. On schedule. I’m sure your son’s fine.”
The wife smiled pleasantly, “Thank you,” she said.
He didn’t know how long it had been since anyone had been so friendly to him.
“Well, welcome home anyway, eh Evran? I’m sure your family will be glad to see you,” the poppa, the big fat guy, said, giving him a slap on the back.
After awhile, the waitress’s parents went back to the kitchen and bar. The man said something to the woman, and the wife laughed.
He ducked his head back to the table, looking at the lists of items on the menu.
The waitress waited, picking up her order-board. After awhile, she asked, “What was it like over there, mister Evran?”
He didn’t know how to answer. He could lie. That seemed easiest, so he did. “It was bad. It was really, really bad.” Telling the truth would take too long. Normal people didn’t deserve those nightmares.
He gave her a little smile, and she nodded gravely.
“What’s good?” he asked.
She came up next to him, looking at the menu on the table. “My brother, he likes the goulash.”
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll have that.”
The waitress reached down, and shut off the menu, and tapped it into her order-board. “You’ll really enjoy it,” she promised, and went back to the rest of her family.
When the goulash came, it was wet in his mouth, and for a second, just a second, he felt revulsion at the wetness, like Enzweiler in the air, but he swallowed and covered his eyes and swallowed and, when he’d gotten ahold of himself, he realized the goulash didn’t taste anything like blood. The paprika was sharp and burned pleasantly, and the beef was good, and the onion was good, and everything about it was good. It wasn’t the meat he’d been fed as a child, before the emancipation, mass produced and sterile, but it was good.
He realized, after a bit, that the goulash was the first food that anyone had made for him since everything hit the wall in Tajikistan. He’d starved, and eaten root vegetables out of the ground and, and other things, and during the quarantine this paste, and after just… just anything he could force down from a vending machine.
The goulash was comfortable in his stomach, like it belonged there.
He paid and left before he started crying, because he’d been so fucking hungry for so fucking long, and he could just get food here by asking for it. By asking for it. He couldn’t explain that to anyone.
Evran might have tried, but it just seemed so impossible to explain what it was like being hungry all the time. Except maybe to his family. Evran could have explained anything to them.
The streets got less familiar for awhile, until he reached the Esplanade, and there were tourists, and everyone seemed happy. There were other furs, and he met a few of his brothers, dogs like him, with a vague nod. Many didn’t even try to get eye contact with him. They knew, one way or another. They knew.
From the Esplanade it was just along the beachfront until he found the first Quay, the Hondura Quays, and he had to go across canal locks to reach Vista Quay.
The sun had gone down a little way, and already he could see the waves breaking reflecting the city-light, and he remembered this one summer, as a kid, when there had been this ice cream vendor who was making it right on the Esplanade and his sister had wanted more and more and more and he’d bought it for her, bought her so much she’d been sick. She’d been about six, and he’d been thirteen at the time. He had a job, even though he wasn’t meant to. His folks said it was okay, though, and having a little money was good for him.
That was probably roughly when he learned to laugh.
He didn’t think he knew how to laugh, anymore.
The Quays were quiet. People parked houseboats here. That’s where Evran’s family lived, on a houseboat that his family took out cruising the coast every so often. Evran’s dad always took the boat out when there was some important family problem to deal with, just a little bit of isolation so the family could deal with it as a family.
He found the right pier, pushing out into a beautiful blue bay, just one pier among many, and he started going down the pier, reading the numbers mounted on the little metal cleats for tying boats to.
There were six cleats for each berth, each one with the berth’s number on it. Six twelves, then six fourteens, six sixteens, ropes wrapped around two or three or four of each. The first one marked eighteen, no rope there. The second, no rope. The third, no rope… no boat tied up at berth eighteen, pier six, Vista Quays.
He knelt down, and fished out the dogtag’s chain.
The name was stamped into the steel. Evran.
The private military company that they worked for didn’t issue dogtags. He and his brothers had to buy them for themselves, but sometimes families made gifts of them to their adopted inhuman sons, going off to war.
Evran’s dad had given him his dogtags, so it was only right.
He lifted the chain off his neck, and wrapped it around the cleat the family boat tied up to. The single tag dangled off the end, gleaming with light while waves gently slapped the pilings.
The other tag was still with Evran, cold in the Gissar mountains.
He remembered the taste of Enzweiler’s blood in his mouth, and the dead children who drank the rainwater, and Evran who saved his life but who he couldn’t save in return. He remembered everything he’d done, and how hungry he’d been, and knew he’d never be able to stop remembering.
He went back into the city, and stayed far from the streets he knew. They were where a thirteen year old fed his six year old sister too much ice cream, and laughed with his mother, and was given a job waiting tables for his father.
He was twenty-one now, and could never go home.