The Powers That Bark

rating: +93+x

Sarah Hughes had been the commanding officer and de facto mother of Mobile Task Force Tau-5 "Samsara" for five years now, but every visit to their quarters still raised her blood pressure. Part of it was their simultaneous status as large children and cybernetic sociopaths. Part of it was the Foundation keeping them in arrested development and away from all human culture made after 1998.

And part of it was the porn.

At least they had good taste. The four of them were crowded around Nanku’s bunk, examining a Playboy centerfold in her hands. They looked up as Sarah walked into the room.

“Captain Hughes,” said Irantu.

“Irantu,” Hughes said. “What are… whatcha reading there?”

Even they could pick up on her strained casual tone.

“Playboy!” said Nanku. “It is very… sensuous!”

“I see,” Hughes said. “Where did you get it?”

“Found it,” Munru said.


Munru, Nanku, and Onru’s eyes flickered towards Irantu. A moment passed.

“In the latrines,” Irantu said. “Behind a loose tile.”

Hughes grimaced. Luckily, nobody she was talking to cared.

“Why are you reading it?”

The four of them looked at each other. Onru shrugged.

“Trying to figure out what all the fuss is about sex!” Nanku said. “Dirk Pitt always has sex with some… vivacious firebrand, but I can’t write about it without knowing about it and Mr. Cussler never quite explains how sex works.”

Teaching a group of Terminators about the birds and the bees ranked slightly below feeding herself to 682 on Hughes' to-do list. She chose a different tactic.

“Tell you what. Why don’t you just… give those to me, and I’ll get you something special.”

“Something special?” Irantu asked.

“Yes. I’ll trade you those magazines — all the magazines you have — for a present.”

“What’s a present?” Nanku asked.

“It’s something very nice that you’ll like a lot!”

“And you are sure that we will like it?” Onru said.

“Absolutely!” Hughes said. “So why don’t you just… hand me those magazines and uh, just forget about everything you saw in them!”

Tau-5 looked at each other. Again Hughes saw three pairs of eyes flicker towards Irantu. His face scrunched up slightly.

“Understood,” he said. They each got up and reached under their beds. Irantu pulled out three issues. From Onru and Munru’s bunks came two dog-eared and worn copies each. Nanku retrieved a pair that were slightly sticky to the touch.

Hughes fought to keep the bile down as the pile of dirty magazines were proffered. “Thank you… very… much!”

“I look forward to this surprise,” said Onru.

Onru strode through the site's corridors with ease born of familiarity, following a path long since cemented in her mind. With a final turn, she approached the shooting range. It was her sanctuary — her only weapon against that beast called boredom. As long as she could make her way past the guardian of the gate.

She tried to slip by the armory counter, but it was too late. She had been spotted. “Oh hey, Onru,” called a voice behind the counter. “Nice to see you today!”

Onru stopped in place and pivoted to face them. They were beaming, standing there behind the counter in a bright red shirt with a nametag that read “Benjy.” Behind them were rows of shelves stocked with Site-30’s prime armaments, stacked tall as a library and illuminated by bare yellow bulbs. Serving as the main entry point for this arsenal was a task that Onru would typically respect, if not for Benjy’s immense… tenacity.

“Gonna let off some steam, eh?” Benjy continued. “Always glad to have a true professional tearing it up in there.”

Onru was completely still. “Yes.”

“What can I getcha?”

“I require a Heckler & Koch USP and 300 rounds of .45 ACP ammunition, as well as a private booth on the range.” Onru placed her ID card on the counter, and pressed her hand to a reddish scanner. It beeped softly.

“You’re all verified. I’ll get that for you right away.” Benjy had the audacity to wink before they turned about and scurried into the armory. Onru managed to relax her posture for a moment, before the clerk returned once again.

“Here you go,” they said with a smile, setting a box on the counter. “Section C’s all clear for you. Have a good practi-”

The door closing behind Onru muffled the end of Benjy’s sentiment. The range was hers. From her private booth, she looked out over the range: ninety meters of poured concrete and empty space, peppered with the grey silhouettes of several dozen humanoid targets.

Onru retrieved her weapon and felt its form along her fingers and palm. She slid the magazine into place and licked her lips as it clicked in. She leveled the firearm at a target, 50 meters out, with a head so tantalizingly absent of lead. The gun was part of her — an extension of her flesh, more so than any implant the doctors could graft onto her.

She breathed deep. Bang, bang, bang, bang. Four shots directly into the target’s forehead.

She pivoted fifteen degrees to the left. Target two, 75 meters out. Begging for pain. Bang, bang. Right in the eyes.

As she managed the careful balance of metal and blood that kept her aim dead-on, her thoughts drifted back to the previous day, as her siblings fawned over pornography, as if it would provide them some great insight into “the human experience”.

Onru did see one benefit, however. It told her where the ego lies. Bang, bang. 90 meters out, two shots, fired with pinpoint accuracy into the target’s groin.

Onru did not smile.

Forty-five minutes later, she slid the box of arms back across Benjy’s counter.

“Did you get them?” Benjy beamed.


“I wish more of the personnel had the kind of consistency you have. It’s really astounding.”

Onru nodded and, as is customary, took exactly two seconds to process this compliment. Satisfying.

Benjy continued. “You know, I make it a goal to go to the range often, but I’m not nearly as-”

Onru had already disappeared around the corner.

Just before Onru opened the door to the bunk room, she paused. She could sense a fourth presence inside the room, but her internal biometric sensors were registering a mass smaller than that of a human. She paused for a moment, noticing an additional unfamiliar whirring sound. Then she slid her combat knife from the pouch in her leg and opened the door.

The knife flew into Nanku’s stomach, slightly below her kidney. This was not Onru’s fault. Nanku had chosen to raise the mystery entity to kidney level in the split-second that Onru had thrown the knife.

The entity barked.

Nanku looked down at the knife in her belly. “Don’t worry, Onru,” she said. “This isn’t an enemy. It’s our gift!”

Irantu pulled the knife from Nanku’s gut and tossed it to Onru. “Our present is a dog.”

“A dog?” Onru caught the knife blade-first and wiped it on her arm, making a mental note to clean it properly later. “What is a dog?”

“This is!” Nanku said. She proffered a brown furry quadruped with long metal legs and a stomach that was entirely transparent around the midsection, displaying internals more suited to an industrial food grinder than living organism. As Onru ventured closer, Nanku turned the creature to face her. It possessed a black back, pointed ears, and a long snout that split into thirds, which it was displaying as its tongue hung out. Inside were rows of rotating metal teeth that spun with a whirring sound. As she inspected it, it glared back at her with large, brown eyes.

Onru squinted into the dog’s mouth. Its panting breath was hot on her face. “Are all dogs cyborgs?”

“No,” Irantu said, “just this one. The Captain said that it was an Indian pariah dog used to re-calibrate a robotic surgeon. It was scheduled for termination but she thought it might be good for us instead. To take care of it.”

“Hmm,” Onru said. “What is its designation?”

“Captain Hughes said we could pick one ourselves," Munru said. “I think we should call it Teeth."

“I think we should call it Aintu,” Irantu said.

“I think we should call it Eviscerate!” Nanku said.

They all looked at Onru.

She frowned. “Why must we take care of it? It was meant to be terminated.”

Nanku let the dog down as her eyes went wide. “No! Please, let us take care of him.” The dog nosed up to Onru, sniffing at her legs. She shuffled away.

“Dog! Come here,” Irantu said. The dog trundled up to him. He rubbed its snout and then ran his finger around the rows of teeth rotating inside.

“Onru, taking care of this dog will make us more likable,” he said. “I suspect, but have not had a chance to confirm, that Erica Kearney and her colleagues talked about our interactions with them and our sister.”

Nanku and Onru raised their hands.

“Killing her is pointless because she has already spoken,” Irantu said.

They lowered their hands.

“Now,” Irantu said, “according to Captain Hughes, in order to take care of this dog, we must train and… bond with it.”

“How do we bond with it?” Munru asked.

Irantu rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Onru raised her hand again.

“Onru, I doubt Captain Hughes would approve —”

“What about what I approve?” she said. “I do not want to be liked. I do not want to care for this irritation.”

The dog whined. Onru narrowed her eyes and growled. The dog fell silent, save the hum of its rotating teeth.

“I do not want to be near it,” she continued. “It is hideous. Its snout is fat and puffy. Its digestive tract is inelegant and overengineered. It makes that irritating gnashing sound with its teeth —”

“Gnasher!” Nanku said. “That’s it! That’s its desig — that’s its name!”

“I like Gnasher,” Munru said.

“Gnasher is… acceptable,” Irantu said.

“Are you listening to me?” Onru said. “I do not want this thing. I will not be forced to care for it.”

“That is irrelevant,” Irantu said sharply. “We must work to be… approachable and friendly, to work with our fellow personnel more effectively. It is tactically advantageous to care for the dog, and we will do so. That is an order.”

Onru’s nostrils flared. “Understood.”

She offered a salute and stomped out of the room. Irantu, Munru, and Nanku watched the doorway for several seconds, but Onru failed to return.

“She will adjust,” Irantu said confidently. He looked down at the newly christened animal. “Now, we must see to you.”

Irantu sat on the floor of the sparring room, holding Gnasher by the midsection. The dog was remarkably unruffled by this. Their eyes were locked onto each other’s with equal intensity.

“Greetings, Gnasher,” Irantu said. “My designation is Irantu. I am your squad leader.”

Gnasher barked.

“I do not know what that means. We must establish communications.”

Gnasher was silent. Irantu thought for a moment.

“Bark once for no. Bark twice for yes. Do you understand me?”

Gnasher barked twice, spraying saliva in Irantu’s face. He blinked.

“Good. Now that we have established a baseline for communications, we can begin your training.”

Irantu set Gnasher down and wiped a hand across his face to get the spittle off.

“To wit, Captain Hughes alerted me to three primary cybernetic augmentations. Your prosthetic legs are capable of telescoping out, your mouth can split open, and your digestive tract is a large grinding apparatus protected by polycarbonate. Am I forgetting anything?”

Gnasher barked twice. Irantu picked him up again.

“Ah, I had forgotten. Your mouth is full of rotating metal teeth.”

Irantu contemplated these augmentations. “To the best of my analysis, you are an eating machine. I suppose your skillset is best suited for waste disposal.”

Gnasher barked.

“No? Why not?” Irantu said.

Gnasher sniffed and looked up at him with pleading eyes.

“Admittedly, you are a very… aesthetically appealing animal. I am fond of your fur and your eyes, as are Munru and Nanku. Perhaps you can be our… mascot as well.”

Gnasher’s tongue slathered itself across his face. The corners of Irantu’s mouth turned up. “You are also an excellent negotiator.”

The next morning, Onru was at the foot of her bed, sharpening her knife. Combat training had dulled it more than she liked, and every millimeter of dullness meant adding precious milliseconds of stab recovery that could instead be spent stabbing.

Over her knife’s edge, she saw a shape sitting at her feet, looking up at the knife.

“Dog,” she said. He blinked.

She moved her knife, and his eyes followed. He leaned in closer.

“Do not touch my knife.”

He was undeterred.

“Dog. If you try to eat my knife, I see two possible outcomes: either you destroy my knife, or it pierces your brain and kills you. Since the former would annoy me, and the latter would annoy my squadmates, do not touch my knife.”

He leaned in closer. Onru watched with clinical disinterest. If this was the path that Gnasher chose, she would let him face the consequences.

Gnasher brought his face right up to the knife’s sharp edge, but stopped short by mere millimeters. His stubby black nose twitched. He was smelling it. His nose followed down the blade, towards the hilt, and onto Onru’s hand. She felt its moistness on her skin.

Without thinking, she held out her other hand, palm up. He turned to it and placed his head on top, resting its weight there.

She blinked.

Onru closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and withdrew her hands. She needed to shoot something. She left her quarters and let the door slam behind her.

At the other end of Site-30, Benjy was waiting at the counter. “Onru! Nice to see you again. What can I getcha?”

She nodded. “Heckler & Koch HK233 with forward grip and a drum magazine. 200 rounds of 5.56 NATO.”

Benjy nodded and skipped back into the shelves. They returned a moment later with her box. “Now give ‘em hell.”

Onru took the box and entered the range, straight to her usual booth, private as always. She stroked the rifle’s metal with irrepressible relish. In a single motion, she slid the ammo drum into place and switched the safety off. She felt its balance, the perfect distribution of its carefully machined internal mechanisms. It was the perfect tool. In the hands of a professional, it felt lighter than air.

She aimed it downrange, straight at a target’s head, 75 meters out.

Bang, bang, bang… The shots continued apace. There was a straight line between Onru and her target, an invisible beam that was now full of speeding lead. She kept firing until the last round left the magazine.

She analyzed the target. Full of holes, but not enough. She saw new chunks of concrete debris lying on the floor. Some of her shots had missed.

She placed the empty drum onto the counter and swiftly replaced it.

Bang, bang, bang… Again. More shots firing wider than they should. Fewer holes on the target. She squinted at her rifle. The range was correct, the zeroing was perfectly-tuned, the grips were level.

She left the range, box in hand. “This rifle may be defective.”

Benjy looked up from their book. “Oh! Defective how?”

She set the box on the counter. “I experienced an unexplainable loss of accuracy.”

“Okay. Gotta have the best tools for the job, right? Leave it here, I’ll take a look at it.”

Onru nodded curtly. “I’m sure you will.”

Gnasher looked up at Munru expectantly.

“Up!” Munru said.

There was a sound like a window-shade dropping. A moment later, Gnasher looked down at Munru expectantly. He now stood on silver stilt-like legs at an impressive three meters tall.


Gnasher tottered forward hesitantly, then more quickly as he became more confident on his stilt legs.


On cue, Gnasher’s legs lowered with the same windowsill sound. He gave a startled yip and landed on the ground.

“Good dog,” Munru said. “Do you want food?”

Gnasher’s eyes widened and he started panting heavily.

“Follow me.”

A few minutes later, the two of them stood in front of the doors leading to the Site-30 cafeteria kitchen.

“Listen carefully,” Munru said.

Gnasher looked up at him with big wide eyes.

“We are going to take snacks from the kitchen,” he said. “Captain Hughes will not let us drink Capri Sun. She says it interferes with the… biochemistry of our tartarotrophic engines. I am tired of being told what I can and cannot eat. I want Capri Sun. Technician Barlow’s birthday party was yesterday. Therefore there must still be some Capri Sun in the kitchen. Do you follow me?”

Gnasher let out a low bark.

“Excellent,” Munru said. “This is what will happen. I will distract the cafeteria workers. You will locate the Capri Sun. It is spelled C-A-P-R-I-S-U-N. Locate it and exfiltrate to this spot with the beverages. Understand?”

Gnasher barked again.

“Good. Let us proceed with the operation.”

Munru shoved the double doors open and strode into the kitchen. The chefs stopped in their tracks and looked at him with surprise. Gnasher trotted into the kitchen and started nosing around.

“Do not be alarmed,” Munru said. “We are… investigating a situation. Continue about your business. This is official Mobile Task Force Tau-5 Samsara business. Do not ask questions. Do not… stray from your duties.”

He wandered about the room briefly, taking in the shiny chrome tables, utensils, and the frightened chefs struggling to cook with the massive cyborg looming over their shoulder.

Then he heard a sound like a clogged coffee grinder. Gnasher had raised himself up to table-height and was tearing into a roast turkey larger than he was. His snout was split into three segments and had nearly engulfed the cooked bird whole.

“Gnasher!” he said. “Bad dog!”

The sound went from coffee grinder to wood chipper as the turkey vanished deeper into Gnasher’s maw and the turbines in his belly spun to life. Munru seized him by the abdomen and pulled him from the table. Gnasher clamped his mouth around the bird for dear life, dragging it deeper into his infernal machine.

Munru gave Gnasher’s polycarbonate back two sharp taps. He immediately lowered himself to the ground, looking up at Munru with a pitiful expression. This was only partially defeated by the remains of the bird being sucked through his gullet like an egg down a python’s throat.

“That is not Capri Sun,” Munru said.

Gnasher whined.

“You were told to locate the Capri Sun.”

Gnasher whined again.

“Hmm. You do raise a good point.”

Gnasher yipped.

“The similarities are… undeniable. I am indeed acting like Captain Hughes.”

Gnasher barked once.

“Very well,” Munru said. “I apologize. I should have let you finish the turkey. Please find my Capri Sun, and I will get you another turkey.”

Gnasher barked twice.

“Irantu was right. You are an… excellent negotiator.”

As Gnasher waddled off, Munru looked around the kitchen. The chefs were staring at him with disbelief.

“Official Samsara business. Sterilize the kitchen as necessary. You will not speak of this event. The safety of the world may depend on it.”

That evening, Onru was lying in her bunk reading a copy of Starship Troopers. Captain Hughes had said it would help her understand the Foundation better, but she found everything that wasn’t shooting aliens to be intensely boring. She just skipped through to the action scenes. As she tried to imagine what it would be like to stand on another planet and obliterate giant bugs, she sensed a squat quadruped amble into the room.

Onru lowered the book slightly and watched Gnasher trundle towards her bunk. His beady brown eyes were laser-focused on her, his tail was wagging with clock-like precision, and his tongue was hanging out. He stopped near the bunk ladder and looked up at her. She gave him a nod and then returned to the book.

There was a sound like a window shade lowering. Onru sensed, but did not acknowledge that Gnasher had telescoped up on his stilt legs to stand at her level. He took a few steps closer to the bunk. Then his two front legs receded up into his body and he toppled forward so that they were firmly on Onru’s mattress. He squirmed forward a little more and then his back legs retracted.

Gnasher was smart, but not enough to understand centers of gravity. The little bump from his legs shortening caused him to begin slipping. He yelped and scrambled for purchase on the sheets. For a heart-stopping moment, he was suspended in the air.

Then Onru’s hands were around his stomach, pulling him onto the bunk. She took a moment to observe how smooth his midsection was. It was soothing to the touch.

“You are a very stupid dog,” she told him. “You are lucky that Irantu has… mandated we take care of you.”

Gnasher licked her face furiously, his tail wagging with joyful intensity. His breath was hot and wet. She wrinkled her nose and set him on the mattress, using the book to wipe her face off.

The dog clambered around the edge of the mattress, sitting down next to Onru’s head. He stared intently at her open book.

“You cannot read.”

He harrumphed and laid down.

“Do you know that you cannot read?”

He looked over at her with pleading eyes.

“You want to do what I do. Is that it?”

He licked her face. She did not blink.

“Fine.” She sat up and gripped his midsection. She held him out in the open air, and he doggy-paddled wildly before extending his legs and gaining footing. Onru jumped off of her bunk, and he lowered himself to ground level. “I’ll show you what I do.”

She strode out of their room and down the hall. Gnasher happily followed. His tail wagged wildly.

“Oh, hi!” Benjy exclaimed as Onru approached the shooting range counter. “Great to-”

“The usual,” Onru interjected, before they could launch into some banal anecdote.

Benjy nodded, disappearing into the shelves, then returning with a metal box. The instant the box touched the counter, Onru grabbed it and set off towards the entrance to the shooting range, dog in tow.

“Wait, is that your dog?” Benjy shouted after her. “Are you taking a dog into the shooting range?”

“Not my dog,” Onru yelled back. The door slammed shut behind both of them.

Onru set her box down on the bench and retrieved her handgun. Gnasher watched intently from her feet.

“This,” she said while screwing on a suppressor, “is a Heckler & Koch USP Compact: universal self-loading pistol. It is utilized by many law enforcement agencies to maintain the peace. I use it to shoot enemy combatants in the head, and occasionally other places as well. This kills the combatants.”

Gnasher had shakily stilted his way on top of the bench, where he sat. Onru nodded and turned to her targets. She held her hands up, locked around the grip, finger over the trigger.

She closed one eye and took aim at the humanoid target, straight out, 50 meters.

Bang, bang, bang – a neat line of bullet holes drew from the target’s stomach to its neck. She raised her barrel a fraction of a degree upwards, ready for the kill shot. She pulled the trigger.

The target’s head was unblemished. She shot again: nothing. The bullets went wide. Onru fired two, three more times, still failing to strike the target. Her hands were shaking. Why were they shaking? Millimeters of unnecessary movement meant meters of lost precision at long ranges. Allowing the enemy to survive for entire seconds longer, providing them ample opportunity to kill her.

She shot again, and again, mindlessly emptying the magazine into the air around her target. She heard Gnasher whine miserably behind her, and felt a tugging at her pant leg.

She spun around. “What? What do you want?” she barked.

Gnasher released her leg and sat in front of her, looking up with flattened ears and dark, quivering eyes.

Onru reached down and pet him on the head. He mewled and pressed his face against her hand. She felt her throat tightening.

“Come on. Let’s get you back to quarters.”

Nanku lay in her bunk, propped up against the baseboard, with pen and notebook in hand. Gnasher lay across her lap, eyes closed and snoring like a stalled chainsaw.

“I was talking to Dr. Cheng about it last week, when she was installing the radar in my brain, and she called it fridging! It’s where women in fiction are consistently injured or killed for no good reason. I love Dirk Pitt but I love Summer Moran too, and she was fridged!”

Gnasher’s eyes opened. He sniffed.

“I don’ — I dunno. I like Summer but not like how Mr. Cussler writes her. I really dislike her romance with Dirk, I dislike romance in general. How do you love someone like that? I love my siblings, I think. I trust them with my life. But I have known them for all my lives. I would never kiss them. That is just odd. Sex too. I feel like we tried to have sex before but could not figure it out and in any case it was just strange. It was nowhere as enjoyable as killing people.”

Gnasher wrinkled his nose. Nanku rubbed his head and he licked her hand.

“What do you think of all this? Why do you think sex and romance and fridging are so important in writing?”

Nanku ran her hands along Gnasher’s teeth. He obligingly nibbled on them, lapping up the spilling blood.

“I can’t figure it out,” she said frustratedly. “I try to be like them. I call myself a Power Ranger and drink beer and read books just like they do, but I’m still not one of them. Just because I like killing people and feeling cool while I do it. They dislike that about me. It… pisses me off.”

Gnasher whined and bit the tip of her ring finger off. Nanku gently wiggled the rest of her hand out his mouth.

“You are a very smart dog. Would you mind taking a look at my current draft? It is the first chapter of my Pacific Vortex! rewrite from Summer’s… perspective.”

She proffered the notebook to Gnasher. He nosed the first page carefully, wetting it. Then he bit it out and shredded it.

“That bad?”

Gnasher barked.

“I think you’re right. I was planning to rewrite the chapter anyways. Here, let me help,” Nanku said. She ripped twenty more pages out and fed half of them to Gnasher. The other half went into her own mouth.

Onru squeezed the trigger again and again. In front of her were targets marred only by evidence of dumb luck and poor arms training. She dragged the magazine out of her rifle and let it fall to the floor with the others. Just as swiftly, she replaced it and let loose another volley of shots that found no purchase. Her chest heaved. Her arms shook.

This gun wasn’t an extension of her being. It wasn’t her tool. It wasn’t anything to her. Just dead lead.

Onru drew back her arm and threw her gun across the range with as much force as she could muster. The clatter was inaudible beneath a shriek of frustration.

She stormed out of the range, box under one arm.

“Uh, how’d it go?” Benjy asked, with audible trepidation.

“Poorly,” Onru spat. She dropped the box onto the counter with a thud.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it,” Benjy said with a sympathetic frown. “I’ve had some terrible days at the range. Like, this one time, I brought my boyfriend…”

Onru just stood there. She held her hands out, clenching and unclenching her fists as Benjy’s words washed over her. She watched as the hands responded to the instruction of her brain. Were they even hers anymore, if they could not kill?

“…so it was a whole thing. We never did find that fish,” Benjy concluded with solemn certainty.

“Yes,” Onru said, quiet. “Right. I should be going.”

“Oh, well, see ya next time,” Benjy shouted as she turned around the corner.

Onru reached the door to her quarters and threw it open. Her siblings were gone, likely to the meal hall. She let the door slam behind her and sat on the floor, arms falling to her sides.

A curious whine came from the end of the room. Gnasher crawled out from beneath Irantu’s bed. He trotted towards her.

“Dog. If you lick my face, I will throw you at the wall.”

He continued, slower. He didn’t move towards her face. Instead, he sat down against her thigh, then laid down along the side of her leg. He was still.

Onru regarded him carefully. Slowly, she reached out and set her hand on his spine. She let herself trace along it, feeling the fur against her skin. They were silent together.

Onru felt a profound sense of peace.

She blinked. Peace. Something clicked together in her mind, an epiphany bubbling to the surface of her consciousness.

She stood quickly, almost leaping to her feet. Gnasher raised his head and let out a muffled bark. She paid him no mind, striding back out into the hallway and straight to the gun range.

Benjy looked up from their counter as Onru approached. “Oh, hi, Onru! Didn’t expect to-”

“Benjy,” Onru placed both hands on the counter. “I need smaller targets.”

Benjy reared back. “Uh… huh. How small?”

“Do you have anything…” Onru feigned ponderance. “Dog-sized?”

Onru lowered her handgun. The air was filled with sweat and burnt gunpowder. She looked out across the range, towards the squat, quadrupedal practice target eighty meters out.

Its flat surface was riddled with bullets. Not a single stray shot.

The gun was part of her again. Everything that had previously been spiralling out of control had now folded back in on itself. Life was no longer complicated.

Onru let herself smile, just this once.

At exactly 2:00 AM, Onru stopped pretending to sleep.

She slid from her bunk and spun into a three point landing on the floor. Her shock absorbers erased any noise. Her siblings were sound asleep.

She walked to the collection of pillows and mattress foam carefully nestled in the corner. Gnasher was curled up on top, breathing quietly. Onru poked his side with the toe of her boot.

He raised his head to squint at her, then shook off the grogginess.

“Come on,” she whispered. “Let’s go.”

She held the door open for him, then closed it carefully behind her. The hallways were silent and nearly pitch-black, but her legs knew where to go.

The entrance to the shooting range was unguarded, and the armory counter unmanned. Just as she’d expected. She grabbed the handle of the range door and pulled sharply upwards. The pistons in her legs aligned, and the door’s hinges slowly bent out of shape, enough for the lock to completely disengage. She went inside. Gnasher followed.

Straight to her usual booth. Straight to the gun she had stashed there. She held the handgun aloft and felt the weight of live ammunition inside.

Onru grabbed the sides of the booth and pulled herself up and over the barrier separating the shooter’s position from the targets. Gnasher’s legs telescoped up, and he followed her over. She strode down the range, past targets both fresh and destroyed, down to the wall.

She took a deep breath, cocked her handgun, and turned around. Gnasher was sitting at her feet.

“Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Gnasher tilted his head, tail raised in anticipation.

“First, we should get our stories straight. I was at the shooting range for late-night training. You escaped from our quarters and followed me here without my knowledge. You broke in and wandered downrange. Mistaking you for an escaped anomaly, I fired on you, and you were killed.”

The dog’s eyes went just a little wider.

“Is this an especially believable explanation?” Onru shrugged. “Maybe not. But who will the Foundation believe?”

“Me,” she said, “or your corpse?”

She lifted the gun up, the barrel just inches away from Gnasher’s head.

He stood up, tail lodged firmly between his legs. His eyes were locked on Onru’s.

“You don’t fool me. I know what you’ve been doing.”

He didn’t move.

“You are sabotaging my operational efficiency. The Foundation depends on my ability to accomplish tasks as instructed, free of error. My failures in training put lives at risk. They put my purpose at risk. So why don’t you react? Why do you celebrate my failure?”

Her voice echoed throughout the empty range. Gnasher whined quietly.

“You give me peace when I must prepare for war. You make me calm when I must be furious at myself. That anger fuels me. It is me.”

Her hands were shaking.

“Why do you look at me like that?” she said. “What do you see in me that makes you so desperate to be by my side? What have I ever done for you that is worth it? What makes me worth it?”

He just stood there. Everything but Onru was perfectly still.

“And why are you still standing here? You know what this does.” She nodded at the firearm in her hands. “You know what will happen. Why won’t you run?” Her finger hovered over the trigger.

Gnasher’s spine was straight. He looked at her with his unwavering eyes, deep brown, recognizable even in the dark. His damp nose twitched in the cold air. His ears were held back, flat against his head.

He looked down. Moving gingerly, he laid on the concrete, curled up, and shut his eyes.

Onru squeezed her eyes closed. Her legs felt weak, her head was light. She took a deep breath, and knelt on the floor.

She shook her head slowly, muttering under her breath as the gun slipped from her fingers. “Such a stupid dog.”

Onru stirred beneath her covers. She squeezed her eyes shut. Something was calling her, pulling her from slumber. Voices, getting louder — and a buzzing sound. She opened her eyes.

Her siblings were standing next to her bunk, talking to each other, craning their necks to look at her.

“What?” Onru said. She looked at her stomach and saw fur. Gnasher was cradled against her body, and her arm was wrapped around him. He was snoring like an electric carving knife.

Onru blinked. She looked back at her siblings. “Do not read into this.”

“But you are so cute together!” Nanku said. “We need to take a picture.”

“You need to leave us alone,” Onru said. She carefully bent her leg to avoid waking Gnasher and reached for her knife. She gently slid it from its sheath and pointed it at Nanku.

“Us?” Irantu said. “You explicitly stated, ‘I do not want to be near it.’”

Onru looked at Gnasher and then at Irantu. “You explicitly stated that what I want is irrelevant. So what we both want is to be left alone.”

Munru raised an eyebrow. As he opened his mouth to speak, Onru’s knife entered his stomach just below the kidney. He put up his hands in mock surrender. “Point taken.”

Onru gestured with her free hand. “Leave us be.”

Munru was last out the doorway. He paused in the threshold, the blade still buried in his gut. “You two make a… picturesque duo.”

Gnasher sniffed once in acknowledgment and raised his head. Onru looked down at him. “You are awake?”

He sniffed again and yawned, then wiggled forward so that the back of his head was just under her chin. Onru thought about getting up and going to the shooting range. She wanted to put a few rounds in man-sized targets again. Then Gnasher licked her face, laid his head down and closed his eyes.

She decided to stay in bed.

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