Of Dogs and Men
Short Story by: Oleg Roschin
They crash-landed on the planet just when the small, orange sun was about to dive behind the misty mountain peaks. Grayish clouds were frowning down upon the unspoiled, virgin soil covered by abundant grass. The air was warm and pleasant, and some exotic plants were spreading a barely perceptible, nostalgically sweet scent.
The Sergeant knew he was going to die. He also knew that everyone else was already dead. The impact was much too strong - it was a miracle that he himself survived, at least for those few minutes; still conscious, still lucid, not even feeling any pain yet. No, that wasn't quite true. His soul was drowning in excruciating pain, impaled by one sharp, merciless thought: it's over. No one will be able to deliver the news. There will be no colonization. Colonization? Screw that, there will be no humanity. The horrible war back on Earth was devouring his race. Those proud pricks and their stupid, stupid ideologies, all of them - the united, yet really isolated, paralyzed West, believing in nothing, devoid of essential instincts and love of life; the sinister, suffocating Middle Land, rooted in cold, rigid, dead social structures, unable to love and forgive; and the Caliphate - radiant, triumphant, but at what cost - eliminating or absorbing everyone else under its testosterone-soaked flag, a crude, cruel parody of a relationship with the Divine.
Philosophy on deathbed, the Sergeant thought and grinned to himself. He was well-educated, versed in many humanitarian disciplines - like one of those bloody 19th century dudes he used to like. He even tried to remember some of the Latin he'd self-taught a long time ago - but his mind must have succumbed to delirium, because the only short phrase stuck in it, repeating itself ad nauseam, was, for some reason, fiat lux. That's it, buddy. You'd joined an elite team of astronauts, sent by an independent organization to find a new home for the remnants of the mad, possessed humanity. Following years of unseen hardship, they'd found a suitable planet - better than suitable, wonderful, the best of all possible worlds. An idiotic, unfathomable navigation error - and there you go: the entire crew dead, and you are getting ready to kick the proverbial bucket very soon as well.
It's unfair, the Sergeant thought - just like he had in his childhood when the humiliation of never getting even a drop out of that tempting condensed milk jar had become unbearable. Tears started flowing down his cheeks. It's unfair, he thought again. Life is unfair. Everything is unfair. He wept bitterly, and then heard a whimper.
Unmistakably, that was a whimper, and it was coming from a large metallic box lying in the grass just a few feet away from him. He instantly remembered. They had taken two dogs with them. Male and female. Large and reddish - merry, chaotic mixtures of different breeds. And now they were just a few feet away, locked in the box, sure to die of thirst very soon if he didn't do anything.
So he crawled. It was hard - much harder than he would ever imagine. It turned out that only one of his arms was functioning; the legs were dead, dangling helplessly as he tried to cover the ground inch by inch, full of incomprehensible determination. A rational thought flashed through his mind - why was he wasting his last moments trying to prolong the life of two animals? But what is rational thinking compared to the genuine urges of the heart, he thought, surprised and almost amused at the ridiculously inappropriate clarity of his analysis. He reached the box, unlocked the small opening, and fell on his back, exhausted.
Two dogs ran out of the box, moving their snouts left and right, looking fussy, confused, and lost. They noticed the Sergeant instantly, surrounded him, stood there with their tongues outside, glimpses of guilt in their tranquil eyes. They sniffed his hands, licked his fingers tenderly. And the Sergeant felt a strange happiness rising in his dying body. Just before he exhaled the soothing air of the planet for the last time, he attempted to smile at the dogs and whispered, remembering something he'd almost forgotten:
5133 AD - 3000 CA (Cynian Age)
"Fine," Inumoto Kenichi said. "We'll keep going. If you insist. Anything to make you shut up... you and his bloody majesty."
Flavius Augustus Canis scratched his left ear with his hinder paw. The fleas were raging, he thought, it's always that uneasy hot, moist, damp season on Cynia that brought forth the worst of those insects. He attempted a prayer to the Gods, but it didn't work - concentration was not his forte.
"Guys, we need to move," Ben Kelev said and stuck out a broad pinkish tongue. His saliva-covered hanging jowls looked intimidating, concealing tender vulnerability. The deceptive fearsomeness of the Boxers: a myth, like all the other prejudices plaguing sons of bitches from century to century. With disgust, Canis thought of the URCD - Union of Racially Clean Dachshunds, a dreadful name if there was ever one. Oh merciful Lords, when shall ye arrive and purge evil out of this long-suffering planet?..
"Yup, only about an hour left till dark," Inumoto agreed easily, his boisterous Shiba posture contrasting Canis's own stooping figure, his narrow, cool eyes so different from the old monk's soulful Labrador gaze. Ben Kelev stood up, raised his large head, and at that moment the three of them saw someone coming down the hill.
He was just a regular son of a bitch. One may even say less than regular, Canis thought as the unknown Chihuahua stared at him. Like all his racial brethren, he was small, yet there was something vaguely menacing in the handsome face adorned with a pair of proudly-looking, oversized ears.
"Sons of bitches!" the Chihuahua said energetically, slightly tilting his head. "I am thrilled to welcome you in my humble abode."
"Abode, my ass," whispered Inumoto, wagging his tail. "Even a Miniature Schnauzer would be ashamed of calling this hole his home."
Canis looked at him sternly, then raised his paw and spoke loudly:
"We are travelers, kind sir. We have walked many kilopaws, leaving behind a trail of urine too long to be measured by mere mortals. We seek nothing but a roof over our heads and a few bones to gnaw liberally when dusk throws its magic cape over the material realm. As the great playwright William Shakepaw says, 'Oh beauty, how do I desire you! For chance has left some meat on your white body. Stop, stop, abundant drooling - am I not the master of my fate, a creature of reason?'"
"Well spoken, my friend," the Chihuahua replied, though looking almost exclusively at the Boxer. "It is, indeed, refreshing to meet a son of a bitch of such literacy in this forgotten corner of Cynia. My name is Don Adolfo Alfonso Perrez, Count of Huesia, at your service."
"Sorry, what was that? Count Basie?" Inumoto raised his front paw. "Never heard."
"Kenichi!" Canis whispered reproachfully. "Behave, please!" Then he politely bowed to the Chihuahua and said:
"What a fortuitous occurrence! Just as the Holy Scripture says, in the First Epistle to the Sobakonians by the great Apostle Pawl, Chapter 11, verse 5: 'And when the fleas make your life intolerable, remember that the Gods brought ye light, yet ye chose sin; but persevere, and they will heal your wounds today."
Perrez bowed too, though seemingly without much enthusiasm, and spoke ironically:
"Always a pleasure to accommodate a holy son of a bitch here. As the Prophet Xiao Gou said, may your fur be long despite all your iniquities. That is a harmless Scripture quote; otherwise, too much horror in those Boxer books for my taste. Myself, I tend to quote the Terriers more; they are more compatible with my simple life and aspirations. Who could ever surpass Hundmer? 'The ire of Kopek, o great one, is stronger than gods with their offspring!' Ahh... pure poetry. Refreshes the mind, liberates you from pseudo-ethical prejudices clipping the wings of our national philosophy. Excuse me," he concluded unexpectedly, raised a hinder paw, and generously peed on the ground.
"National philosophy?" Inumoto asked, surprised and amused at once. "With all due respect, I've never heard of Chihuahuas producing metaphysical essays."
"Not Chihuahuas," Perrez said with barely perceptible hostility, putting his paw back on the ground. "Dachshunds."
Thoughts started uneasily creeping into Canis's head. He heard that the URCD was conquering those forgotten lands to make their dream reality: a unified, strong Cynia, with slick, athletic Dachshunds setting the tone. He recalled loud, colorful leaflets calling for the solution of the "Boxer question": an unknown politician was seriously suggesting a complete extermination of a race so ugly it offended the new aesthetics. Dachshunds themselves were too stubbornly honest to write something like that; Canis felt a different mind, stuck in a laughably small body, disproportional pride poisoning it day by day. Boxers, the keepers of the Scripture, were under assault for their tenacious adherence to what the modern world discarded as fairy tales. A new order was coming, where there was no longer place for Gods - only sons of bitches.
The rather unconvincing friendly mask fell off Perrez's face quickly. He knew that I knew, Canis understood. Three phlegmatic Dachshunds suddenly appeared behind the Chihuahua, and in the next moment Ben Kelev was caught and tied to a piece of wood in the middle of the yard.
"Hey!" barked Inumoto. "What the hell you think you're doing? This son of a bitch is our friend! So what if he is crazy, saying he's a bloody king and Gods are coming and all that? Gods or no Gods, you can't do whatever you want!" He attempted to bite Perrez's black nose, but missed by half an inch.
"Oh, can't I?" smiled the Chihuahua, while three more Dachshunds were holding Inumoto and Canis in a tight grip. "Your prophecies say a great king is going to sacrifice himself to the Gods for us sons of bitches. Well, if you don't believe that, why do you follow him? He is either right or he is mad; yet you, kind sir, seem to believe the latter! If such is the case, there are no Gods, and no salvation! Sons of bitches rule themselves! Freedom, freedom forever!" He was positively squealing with ecstasy.
Canis saw uncertainty in Inumoto's eyes. The Shiba's sense of justice, his hatred of anything unfair were still there. It's just that those noble sentiments are always a double-edged sword, Canis thought mournfully. Perrez was right in many ways: no one has ever seen the Gods, and Ben Kelev's vague, yet undoubtedly incredible claims were shared only by Canis himself and a handful of other enthusiasts with questionable sanity. Inumoto has followed because he wanted to protect the weak; but the cold ray of reason, the merciless steel of logic conquered a heart unwilling to make a leap of faith.
"Why kill him, though?" mumbled Inumoto, feeling the Dachshunds' grip slackening. "Just let him go, he is harmless..."
"You are mistaken, my friend," said Perrez softly. "It's either him or us. We are either for him or against him. There is no third way. We let him go, and he'll revive the half-forgotten madness. Once again, sons of bitches will be bound by rules and dogmas. Once again, we shall do the will of unproved Gods rather than our own will! We are strong, we are free, and our mind is mighty! We are done with the meekness of the hideous Boxers, we celebrate beauty, art, our liberated bodies! We are sons of bitches - oh, how proudly doth this sound!"
"Yup," agreed Inumoto after a short silence. "We're on the same page here, buddy. Strong ain't dangerous; weak is. Took me a while to figure that one out. I'll do the deed myself, pal. Just stay out of my way afterwards, 'cause I still don't like you and your dense servants."
Perrez nodded to the Dachshunds, who promptly released Inumoto.
"Kenichi!" Canis cried out tearfully.
The Shiba turned to him.
"Sorry, dude," he said. "I like you, and actually I like him too. But he's insane, man, like, completely nuts, you dig? I said it before, but you weren't listening. I protected him from a crowd of Samoyeds back in Chienville. I stood by him when those angry Mastiffs cursed him in Psograd. But I ain't doing this no more, man. I never believed in Gods - they were invented long time ago to keep us sons of bitches on a short leash. This Ben Kelev guy here is convincing, and if he is right, then it's the end of us all. So I hope he is wrong, but in any case he needs to be silenced. Can't you see that?"
Canis was losing it. Patience was not on the list of his virtues. Too many feelings were suffocating him from within. Tears started flowing from his sad Labrador eyes.
"There are Gods!" he shouted madly. "What are we without them? Wild creatures without a sense of right and wrong! We got everything from them, and we need to stay loyal! It's mean, Kenichi, mean and unfair! We can't betray them!"
"Betray whom?" laughed Inumoto. "Wake up, my dear Retriever!.. They don't exist! Here, let me show you!"
He started bouncing around the helpless Ben Kelev, inexplicably enraged beyond any reason, beyond his own understanding. He hit Ben Kelev hard on the face with his strong paws, bit his ear with a desperate viciousness.
"See?! See?!" he screamed. "If there are Gods, why don't they save him? He is their own pet, isn't he? So why do they let me do it? Why can I still do it? Why am I not punished by your Gods? See, I can now kill him, and nothing will happen! See?!"
"Enough!" shouted Perrez. "We are not challenging those who do not exist! The doubt in your heart, o Shiba, consumes your mind! Blessed is the one whose belief was purged completely by the liberating, proud fire of knowledge! Finish the job!!" he yelled at the Dachshunds, who pushed Inumoto out of the way and began to tear Ben Kelev's body apart with their powerful teeth. The only words the Boxer uttered were rather strange, considering the circumstances. Still alive, still in great pain, Ben Kelev cried out:
"Guys! Have you forgotten me, or what?!"
"Alright, Josh," Novalis said calmly. "Are you ready?"
Josh laughed nervously.
"Can I ever be?" he said, spreading his arms. "I mean... this is the craziest thing I've ever heard in my life."
"Maybe that's why it has to happen," Novalis smiled.
"Maybe that's why it's true," Men added. "Who said truth had to be plain? A door can only be opened with one particular key, but if you just look at the key without the keyhole it fits, all you'll see is a strange metallic object of an incomprehensible, needlessly complicated shape."
"Okay, you... philosopher," Staples said, patting Men's shoulder. "Let's focus here. This operation is the most important event in the history of humanity since..."
"Since the end of the world," Josh said.
"Right," Staples agreed. "Since the end of the world. Though maybe we should stop using this outdated terminology. The end of what world, that's the question. Being here feels damn good even when the sea is no more, as they say."
They all laughed.
"Josh, seriously," Novalis said. "Be careful. It's not going to be easy. But you have to complete this operation. The only way our friends over there can join us is by changing their very nature. It's been three thousand years, Josh. They have changed... in more ways than one. And we... we still miss them."
"I know I do," Staples said seriously.
"So this is how it's going to be," Novalis continued. "I never imagined it quite like that, but... I knew nature needed an Anointed One, too. I felt it, I said it, and here it comes. You are going to become a dog, Josh. You are going to feel everything an ordinary dog would. But you'll still be human inside. That's the big difference. Fully human, fully canine - that's the only way. And once your life there ends, the energetic impulse released by your death is going to revitalize the entire planet. You'll be with us again, Josh. And they will be with us too - consciously, ready for what we have here, without coercion, through conviction... and faith."
"Beautiful speech," Josh grinned. "But you are coming to pick me up... Right, guys?"
"Of course," Staples said softly. "One for all, and all for one. Just have some faith, brother. And don't lose hope."
5153 AD - 3020 CA (Cynian Age)
Flavius Augustus Canis was ready. Years of monastic training have prepared him to face his last moment with calm and dignity - but those were nothing compared to what he had experienced twenty years ago. Faith is a very weird thing. It is like a strong ray of light suddenly illuminating a perpetually dark room - once the initial joy wears off, you begin to realize with horror where you've been all this time without even realizing that. Faith rejuvenates you, but it also shatters you to pieces. You become addicted to this elusive light, can't live without it any more. Having faith alone is not enough. You also need hope, and you need love in spades.
They will all outlive him, Canis thought without bitterness. Dark times are coming. The URCD has begun its campaign of Boxer annihilation. Perrez became the sole Emperor of Cynia, and all sons of bitches were required to worship him as if he were a God. And Inumoto... he hasn't heard of him for a long while. He was still probably wandering there, roaming the Cynian surface, unable to find solace, unrepentant, way too proud of all those things that are bound to crumble to pieces. The ire of Gods, he thought. He disliked that expression when he was young. Why would Gods be angry? What kind of Gods are they if they are mad at you when you make mistakes? Now he knew better. Our folly is such that we curse the Gods no matter if they intervene or not. We are all doomed, Canis thought, unless we believe in what happened.
He hasn't seen this with his own eyes. Ben Kelev was allegedly spotted alive by a few not particularly trustworthy individuals only three days after being viciously murdered. Most dismissed this as a pitiful fairy tale - so great was their disappointment as the dark shadow of URCD kept growing and growing in spite of everything. The ecstatic eyewitnesses formed a fellowship Canis joined as well. He believed. He didn't need to touch anything in order to believe - he remembered Ben Kelev, and that was enough. He came to save us. He was the Anointed One, as foretold by the Scripture. And if he wasn't, then what's the use of our faith? What's the meaning of all our lives?
Everything is going to be all right, Canis thought - and died with this thought in his mind.
Only it wasn't really death.
At any rate, it wasn't the end. He didn't know how much time had passed, because the mere concept of time suddenly lost its meaning. He remembered everything, but the memories felt strange, as if they were an interesting, emotionally written book rather than his own experiences. He opened his eyes and looked around in astonishment.
He was in a garden. It was indescribably beautiful. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before. A garden, just like the one where the Ancestors lived. He didn't even dare to believe that. Then he heard voices and footsteps. And he knew They were coming. The Gods.
He'd imagined this meeting so many times, but only now he realized how different it was from anything his mind could ever fathom. It was as if he suddenly acquired a new sense, finally became whole, figured out the last and most significant piece of a puzzle, was born again, became different yet remained more himself than ever before... But all those phrases sounded so cliche and empty compared to what he was experiencing. It was natural. And it was real.
A tremendous, blissful, overwhelming emotion, stronger than anything else in the world, possessed his entire being. He raised his snout and happily, loudly barked at the Gods. And Their words - especially the last one, which he instantly understood despite hearing it for the first time - tasted better than the best bone marrow, were sweeter than the loveliest bitch's affection, more soothing and comforting than getting rid of the last flea in his fur:
"Come here, boy! What a good dog!"
© Copyright 2017 Oleg Roschin. All rights reserved.