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Never Again

© 1999-2003 Draconus and Stratadrake of TWZ

Chapter Seven: The Dogs Of War

(rough draft + partial revision)

TO: "James Z. Sinclair", Cmdr., 102nd Remote Division

Greetings, Commander. We should congratulate you on your successful recovery of the twenty-four prototype Type 3 RCO units yesterday and the arrest of Raiders with them. This will teach those bandits to choose their targets more carefully.

More to the point. We reviewed Dr. Alexander's request and have agreed. We will send General Bradley to your outpost with your next flight of resupplies. He will personally review the results of Dr. Alexander's experiment and determine if it is worth the price paid with General Adrius's death. Not until then will we decide how or if to continue funding of Dr. Alexander's endeavours.

Your next shipment of resupplies will include a new HDU module, projectors, matching software and hardware to upgrade your training arenas with. A crew of technicians will accompany the shipment and see to its proper installment and calibration.

We have also received word of your recent combat training with your co-commander Mark; we hear it is going well. If ever you should change your mind in regards to the Synaptic Link interface, we will do whatever we need to restore you to action in a combat division.

In the meantime, you have been authorized to receive a small division of the prototype "kennel" units. They have proven their value in minesweeping operations and their transport should arrive in three days. Attached is a set of orders for your construction crews; they are to expand your outpost southwards for housing of the kennel units and construct a new perimeter wall around that area.

On a more personal note, we hear your father has succeeded in the Senate primary elections. It is now up to the Slate to appoint the next Senator of your district.

HQ signing out. We will give you a set of follow-up orders pending the evaluation of Dr. Alexander's endeavours.

Right, James thought to himself as three large cargo transports touched down on their base LZ, full of supplies. James, Mark, Sarah, and Reed stood on the bank of the LZ awaiting their arrival. The landing gear of the nearest transport deployed as it touched down on six legs. Soon, a hatch opened from its side, a small staircase folded outwards, and then the inner hatch opened. One of the pilots stepped out first, followed by General Bradley, currently wearing flight gear.

They weren't supposed to arrive until tomorrow.

A second pilot followed Bradley out of the transport. James and Mark immediately snapped to attention and saluted the general -- for what it was worth, anyway.

"At ease, commanders!" Bradley said -- loudly, to overcome the near-defeaning noise of the transports' engines, as he returned salute. He walked over to James and Mark, stopping at a distance of three feet with the two transport pilots at his side.

"General Bradley, sir!" James shouted back, a slight concern lining the edges of his voice. "We were not expecting you to arrive today! What brings you here so early?"

"That is right, commander!" Bradley yelled back over the noise of the engines. "Our meteor team was forecasting a storm for last Friday and we were expecting to delay the launch until it cleared! However, the winds changed and the storm blew elsewhere. We were free to launch!"

General Bradley looked over the four of them, stopping at Reed. "As you know. I'm here to evaluate Dr. Alexander's progress! I was expecting to find the prototype out here with him! Where is it?"

"It's in the training arena at the moment!" Mark shouted back, as the nearest transport automatically shut off its engines to cool down. Now they could talk without having to shout at each other. "I was running combat drills with my men when Jim told me you guys were arriving early. I let the prototype take over supervising the arena so I could be here when you arrived."

"Have you completed the housing for the kennel units yet?"

"No sir," James responded. "The framing and walls are finished but the crews won't have the rest completed until tonight or tomorrow morning."

"I see," Bradley nodded, glancing over to the south side of the base at two half-built structures surrounded by construction vehicles, materials, and other equipment. "You will just have to make room for the six kennel pilots and their handlers until then."

" 'Kennel' units, sir? I do not believe I've heard of them," James responded.

Bradley chuckled to himself. "I know. The kennel project reached production only a few months ago, about the same time we transferred you out here. You can ask the handlers all about it if you want. . . . Now, if you'll excuse me I have an appointment with Dr. Alexander."

"Agreed, sir," James responded. Bradley walked over to Reed and asked to see the prototype. Reed nodded and led the way back inside.

Just then, James heard a distinctly canine yelp coming from one of the transports. He looked over to see, much to his surprise, five soldiers escorting six leashed canines out of the far transport. The dogs looked ans sniffed about the area the moment they set foot on solid ground. "What are those doing here?"

"Those must be . . . ," Mark responded. "-- Jim, I've heard about the kennel units a bit. Rumors mostly. They say it requires canines like those for something, but what or how . . . let's take a walk over there and ask them."

James looked to Sarah. "Sis?"

"No, Jim," Sarah responded. "I have tests to run back in my lab. I must get going."

"Okay," James nodded, and Sarah walked off towards their medical building.

Mark led James under the nearest transport and over to the far transport, where the dogs were. Mark waved at the soldiers holding the dogs' leashes and they returned in a quick salute. They ordered the dogs to sit down, and the six canines -- well trained, all of them -- quickly sat down.

James walked over to one of the canines and let it sniff his hand. A german shepherd, it seemed friendly enough. But there was something a little unsteady about its gaze back at Jim.

Mark looked at the soldiers and nodded. "We'd like to take a tour of your unit. What can you tell us about the kennel project?"

Another soldier walked down the cargo ramp of the transport and saluted when he saw Mark and James. "Hey Simon," one of the soldiers said. "Show the two commanders around. Our boys need to get some exercise." The group of five soldiers led away to begin walking the six canines.

The remaining soldier, Simon, waved up the ramp towards the interior of the cargo. "This way, commanders,"

James and Mark followed Simon into the lower-level cargo bay of the transport. James was surprised when he saw the kennel unit mecha. Two of them were a light blue in color, a third one was gray. Each mecha had four legs -- but these weren't just cyborg mecha with four legs, they were quadroped mecha. Proportionally speaking, their torso section was both longer and more slender than the average cyborg, and their legs were shorter. They were probably no more than 12 or 13 feet high, about half the size of a cyborg, but about 20 to 25 feet from front to back, about as long as a normal cyborg is high.

Suddenly a realization dawned on James: Canines. These mecha weren't designed to mimic the human shape at all. They were designed to resemble . . . dogs?

"Impressive, right?" Mark said to James. "I've never seen one in person in before, just on vids. What do you think?"

James looked at the mecha again, noticing gaps in their armor plating on the shoulders and hindquarters. A circular pattern of metal rings hinted that they were probably hardpoints for weapons. "Who pilots these things?"

"The canines, of course," officer Simon responded.

"What!?" James objected.

Mark looked at one of the mecha. "Can you show us one of the pilot chambers?"

Simon nodded. He led them over to one of the mecha -- his, in fact -- until they were standing underneath it, between its front legs. He unhooked two manual latches from the overhead chestplate and instructed them to get clear. He pulled the plate open, and two side plates folded open revealing an entrance to the mecha. He pulled the front plate down farther and it revealed a ladder leading inside. Simon climbed up the ladder and crawled into the compartment. He turned around and called to Mark and James. "Commanders, have a look."

Mark climbed up on the left half of the wide ladder, leaving room for James to climb up the right half. The officer Simon began explaining the interior to them. "As you can see, there is enough room in this pilot chamber for the canine pilot and their handler. Obviously, the pilot's job is to operate and maneuver the mecha in a combat situation, as according to orders. The handler -- that'd be me; I act as the co-pilot and gunner, depending on the needs of the situation."

Simon reached upwards to the ceiling of the comparment and withdrew what looked like a hybrid between gas mask and VR helmet. "This is the pilot's helmet. Sundance's helmet --"

"Sundance?" Mark interrupted.

"Oh, sorry. That's the name of my dog. We call him Sundance. Anyway. There is a Link Port in in the back connecting to the pilot's link, and allows the canine to maneuver its mecha intuitively. The helmet includes a VR projector which covers the pilot's complete field of view. The canine sees, hears, and can even smell the battlefield outside the mecha."

"What did you say about a Link?" James inquired.

"Right," Simon responded. "Better step back outside first." He motioned for Mark and James to move aside. James and Mark hopped down as the pilot turned around and climbed out. He folded the ladder and then closed and locked the hatch panels. "Allow me to fetch my dog," he said. He led Mark and James out of the cargo level and down the ramp to the outside. Grabbing his comlink, he pressed a few buttons and whistled. For a minute, nothing happened. Then, they heard a the bark of one canine approaching. The dog ran up to Simon and sat down promptly.

Simon patted the canine on its muzzle and head. "This is Sundance. We work as a team in the kennel unit." He took the dog's collar and shifted it around, then unhooked and removed it entirely. "Take a look..."

Sure enough, on the back of the canine's neck, almost completely hidden by its fur, was what seemed to be a synaptic link port. James stepped back in surprise, while Mark petted the canine. "Is that the Link?"

"Well, yes and no," Simon responded. "It's called a Canine Neuro-Link, or K9NL as we call it. Hence the term 'kennel'. Essentially, it's a limited version of the Synaptic Link you pilots use. However, notice its shape is different. You can't attach a K9NL to a synaptic system or vice versa."

"Who developed it?" Mark inquired.

"The V. R. Wolfe foundation spent nearly a decade in its development cycle. Man's best friend has been that way for thousands upon thousands of years, but no one has yet been able to translate canine thought patterns into something we can understand, or vice versa. So instead, the K9NL merely intercepts muscle signals and converts them into a usable format for controlling the mecha. That's all it can do."

"I see," Mark responded.

"How did the ARA take it?" James asked.

"Predictably," Simon responded back. "Protests, hate mail, death threats -- the works. The 'Slate then transferred the Wolfe foundation's research onto any and all available military outposts, declared the project classified and gave us full authority to detain, arrest, even shoot any unauthorized personnel found on or near military installations.

"So, yes, the dogs are linked. But they can't operate their mecha for very long periods of time, nor can they operate one alone. Canines can't comprehend a Link. Even Sundance here, he doesn't know what that thing under his collar is. He hardly even knows it's there. But if we were to plug him in or unplug him suddenly, Sundance would just about die of a panic attack because he doesn't understand what's happening. So, as a handler, whenever we hook one of them in or out, its our job to put them under anesthesia for the process."

"We may never know for sure, but the developers theorize that from Sundance's perspective, he just falls asleep and has a dream. Once out of the anesthesia and plugged in, he's actually wide awake, but the helmet and link provide him with full sensory perception of the outside so he never realizes he's just linked to a computer-mechanical system. When the job is done and we need to unhook him from the system, I put him under again, unhook the link, take the dog out, and when he wakes up, well . . . Sundance is back to being ol' Sundance again."

"I see...," Mark nodded.

"Still, it takes a special kind of training to prepare a canine for use as a kennel pilot," Simon continued, ruffing the fur around his canine's neck. "Sundance here was in training for two years, halfway through which he went through surgery for his link. Even after the training, it took additional in-house training to get Sundance used to pilotting the mecha. But, he's been in practice for half a year now...."

"Right," Mark nodded. "Jim, what do you --"

Mark turned around and discovered James nowhere in sight.


James was found in Hangar C, sitting on his rusty tank Leogryph when Mark arrived. "Jim!"

James looked up and nodded silently; he was too busy thinking. Canines as cyborg pilots? Preposterous. No, even more so, it was just plain wrong. What kind of quack thought up the idea of housing a dog inside a large mecha and putting it to use in warfare? Canines weren't made for modern warfare. Police and forensic works, yes. But war? Why?

Mark jogged down the staircase and ran over to James. "Jim, what happened?"

"I don't like it," James said. "When HQ said we would be getting a few kennel units, I had no idea that... that . . . ."

"-- that there would be actual canines in the kennel mecha?" Mark completed the sentence.

James nodded in response. "It's not fair, and it isn't right."

"I don't know," Mark said as he grabbed the Leogryph's aging handholds and climbed up. "Canines have always been man's best friend. Even in this day and age of warfare. I suppose it's only natural --"

"No," James objected. "It's not. Logical, foreseeable, another step down the road -- yes. But not natural. Far from it . . . we shouldn't have to take care of them. Send them back."

"Well...," Mark began. "For what it's worth, Jim, those kennel units will be under my division and my authority. You may be worried about them, but --" Mark climbed up onto the turret, closer towards Jim. "-- As an officer of equal rank, I can say this. Let me handle them. Let me be worried about them. If you don't like them, you don't have to. Pretend like you never saw them if you want. But HQ ordered thir group to our area, we can't just send them back. At least not without authorization. In the meantime, they're ours."

Mark looked at James. "Or should I say, they're mine?"

James smirked. "Get outta here . . . ." James shoved Mark aside, causing Mark to lose balance and fall. He fell off the turret onto the sloped front portion of the Leogryph, then slid and rolled down. He caught on to the front edge of the tank just in time to soften his landing on the floor. It was an unexpected, rough landing, but he was unhurt.

Mark stood back up and brushed himself off. "All right, then . . . can you at least let me handle everything regarding the kennel units? They can be part of my load, rather than yours."

James sighed and thought about it. He could still feel a sort of deep-down nagging revulsion about the mere concept of 'kennel' units, similar to but stronger than his disgust for the synaptic link. But then again, Mark was right. The two of them were equal rank, and Mark being the commander in their infantry division, the kennel units would be more on Mark's shoulders than James's. Perhaps if James could find some way to regard the canine pilots like any other synaptic pilot . . . .

"Jim?" Mark waved upwards. "Are you listening?'

"Huh?" James spouted, interrupted from his thoughts.

"Aren't you going to answer my proposal? Let me take the kennel units, and from there on out you won't have to worry one thing about them."

James thought about it again. "Well . . . ." The idea of giving Mark full responsibility over the kennel units -- it would happen anyway, whether James agreed to it or not, but the thought of it was growing appeal the more James thought it over.

James arrived at a mental concensus and responded. "Yeah. That'll work. You get the kennel units and any orders regarding them -- bceause I'm not touching them."

Mark chuckled. "Roger that. Oh, and will I find you in the arena today?"

James looked up to the ceiling for a moment before turning his gaze to Mark and responding. "If I have time . . . yeah."

Mark laughed. "You've got time, all right. How about now?"

Yes, James had some time at the moment. With the general, Bradley, attending to the evaluation of their Adrius and Andrake robots, and the construction crews busy assembling quarters for the new kennel units, James's schedule for the rest of the day was blank. Sure, he could duel.

James stood up and climbed down from the rusted Leogryph. "Why not? I'll see you there."