Into the Ring

The buzz of conversation rising from the lips, snouts and muzzles of hundreds of audience members filled the cavernous space of the fight chamber. My previous bouts had been witnessed by crowds perhaps three-quarters this size. But tonight, I was part of the feature card. That seemed fitting. After this evening, it was rumored that we would be shipping out. If that were true, any chance of Lennax and the rest of the recovery team finding me would become that much fainter. I snarled as I considered that thought.

I looked across the ring and contemplated the maddened expression of my opponent, Ajax. The haze thrown off by haava smoke, a narcotic favored by a significant portion of the assembled crowd, made the glow of his eyes even eerier than usual. Haava smokers  . . .  that thought led me down a different trail, and though I knew I should be focussing on my strategy for staying alive in the coming moments, I cast my thoughts back to the meeting that marked the start of this dark and difficult assignment.

When my handler Lennax and I were first ushered into Captain Smitwick's office, I was eager to take on our next task. We'd just gotten back from a month of leave, and I felt like a tightly-wound spring. I needed action.

"Does this have something to do with the Mayor's dog disappearing this morning?" Lennax asked Smitwick half jokingly, once the Captain had finished greeting us. "It was all over the news this morning."

"Actually, it does," Smitwick said, and the mottled purple skin on his face that marked his Marsilvian ancestry flushed a shade darker. "As you've heard, all types of animals have disappeared across the city and the surrounding countryside, in alarming numbers. The Mayor's dog was simply one of the most recent casualties. We believe the Scava Syndicate is behind it."

"You think they're getting into animal fighting?" Lennax raised his eyebrows. "That's been banned for a long time, in all of the known galaxies."

"As to 'getting into', no. They've been at it for a long time," Smitwick replied. "The main event is dog fighting, but other species are also placed in the ring to provide novelty for those who wish to bet on such things as how quickly one will dispatch another, or who will triumph. From what our informants tell us, the fight nights provide a springboard for other illegal activity, such as drug trafficking --haava particularly -- and fencing stolen materials. The only problem is, we've looked into all the usual rat-holes and can't determine where exactly this is going on."

"Which is where we come in," Lennax guessed.

"We'll need PD to go undercover, equipped with a transmitter that will ping at irregular intervals." Smitwick nodded in my direction. "Your job," he continued, turning his gaze on Lennax, "will be to lead the recovery team." 

The technology related to AI-enhanced police dogs had advanced in the two centuries since canines had first been connected to the Cloud. I was proud that my ancestry traced back to one of the first-ever AI-enhanced canine police officers, a German Shepherd named Fitzy. Through generations of breeding, my ancestors' brains had developed under the stimulation of the AI connection. Even unenhanced, I was far more intelligent than my forebears. Now, an AI-enhanced dog's cleverness approached the lower band of the human average. As a result, we were treated increasingly as co-workers with their own rights.

For this reason, Smitwick bent his knees, crouching down to look me in the eyes.

"This assignment will be dangerous," Smitwick's voice was grave. I watched him, unblinking. "You'll be working on your own. Also, you won't be the first to be sent on such a mission. We sent another, but the transmission device failed." He paused for a moment. "We believe we have counteracted the design flaw with the transmitter." He stared into my eyes. "Do you accept the assignment?"

I barked once, showing my assent. After all, wasn't this the type of thing I had been trained for?

Smitwick straightened. "It's settled, then. We'll gear him up."

Lennax let his hand rest on my head for a moment. I could sense his concern for me. "After that, shall I take him to the City Park? It's where some of the other pickups have taken place." To his credit, he kept his voice steady despite his misgivings.

"Yes. At dusk, tonight. Let's get moving."

I staggered as my captor led me into the kennel room, which was lined with wire pens. The stench that assailed my nostrils --a reek of ammonia and worse smells -- told me that other members of my kind were being kept in a state of unnatural filth, for we will not willingly live in dens stained in such a manner, given a choice.

I'd been drugged at the time of my capture, so I had no sense of how far or how long we had travelled. I sniffed again, filtering through the foul air to seek details that might yield a clue regarding our location. My forehead wrinkled in concentration. The odor was deeply unpleasant, that was true, but the air smelled odd for a different reason. There was a metallic, treated quality to it.

I barely noticed the door of the pen slam shut behind me as I continued to study my surroundings. Bare metal walls, metal floor -- my lips raised in a silent snarl. It was clear, now, why it had been so difficult to pinpoint the location of the Syndicate's activities. We were on a spaceship, and judging from the vibration I felt building through the floor, we were readying for take-off.

For a few dizzying seconds, I felt a jolt of terror roll through me. Then I steadied myself. Lennax would find me. I pictured him, his earnest brown eyes under the close-clipped black hair, his firm but gentle hands. There was a bond between us that made it difficult for each to be without the other. No matter the obstacles, he would find me. I must believe that.

I curled up on the cushion -- the only thing in the room that seemed somewhat clean -- and schooled myself for sleep. Sensing that someone was watching me, I raised my head to meet a menacing stare from another German Shepherd across the aisle. Broad-shouldered and at the large end of the customary size range for our species, he was a handsome enough fellow if you looked past the maddened eyes. The tattered left ear, which I presumed was the souvenir of a fight, lent him a debonair air.

"New guy, huh?" the Shepherd eyed me disdainfully. "Think you're tough?"

"Tough enough," I growled as I stared back, raising the hair along my back for effect.

"Don't let Ajax bother you." The voice, deep and slow, came from the pen to my right. "They call me Agamemnon, here -- Aga for short." There was a pause, then the voice took on a dreamy quality. "I had another name once, but I have forgotten it."

Here, all is best forgotten," Ajax said angrily, then turned his back and stomped toward the back of his pen.

The conversation with Ajax clearly over, I looked into Aga's pen. He was a Border Collie. The left half of his face was white as a fresh snowfall, and the right half as black as the space between the stars. The separation between the colours ran between his eyes and along the midpoint of his nose, as precisely as if someone had marked off the colour areas with a ruler, then carefully painted them. "What's with him?" I asked Aga, jerking my head toward the pen across the way.

"His master, Vega, got in over his head, betting," Aga whispered. "Vega was forced to give Ajax to the Syndicate, in exchange. It is not the first time such a thing has happened. The Syndicate does not like to be disappointed, when they see something they covet." Aga paused for a moment, as if considering whether to share more, then added, "Despite his tough exterior, Ajax has never forgotten that betrayal. Be careful, if you meet him in the ring. Fighting has become his only passion."

The sunless days rolled into moonless nights in a slow and nightmarish progression.  My new handlers, recognizing the athletic potential packed in my brawny body, were eager to see me survive a few fights. I spent several days learning different holds and manoeuvres, with Aga as my sparring partner. The Border Collie was clever -- too clever -- and I suspected he was also AI enhanced. If he had been a police dog, he had since buried that knowledge, like a forgotten bone stashed so securely it is never to be found again.

It went against all of my instincts to harm, let alone fatally injure, an innocent opponent, but fighting successfully was part of my undercover assignment. If I lost a fight, the mission would be doomed to failure. So I battled with a ferocity I hadn't known I possessed. 

The first time I stepped into the ring for real, before an audience, was the worst. When I clashed with my opponent in the centre of the combat surface, I quickly sensed that the other dog, who looked to be a Boxer cross of some type, was no match for my reflexes and power. I also realized it might be dangerous to reveal the full extent of my strength and intelligence, so I prolonged the battle just long enough to create the illusion of a struggle. When I went in for the killing stroke, I whispered a prayer for forgiveness. 

The ship had docked at a clandestine space station that catered to those who skirted the fringes of the law, and the station provided a steady stream of spectators for the fight nights, which fell three times per week. The only thing that got easier as the bouts continued is this: the opponents I was pitted against were progressively stronger, quicker, and more cunning. Winning a fight was no longer a calculated matter where I deliberately held back to make the outcome appear in doubt. Instead, each skirmish became a chaotic swirl that demanded light-speed reflexes and split-second decisions if one wished to live to fight another day. I battled with an ever-increasing intensity that earned me a boisterous following among the fans. The adulation sickened me.

When I paced in my pen between battles, during the starless, soulless nights, my thoughts raced, worrying at long-worn fears. If I stayed here long enough, would I lose my morality, and become a killing machine like the rest of those here? Though it provided an agonizing counterpoint for my new environment, I forced myself, each night, to remember things I had learned at the Precinct. I clung to my training like a boater flung from his vessel might cling to a life raft.

Aga witnessed my struggles. One night, he drew as close to me as the fencing between us allowed. "Why do you torture yourself so?" he asked quietly. "Ajax was right. It is best to forget. This is a lost place. If you are hoping to be found . . . "

"You give up, if you like," I growled in reply. "I will not."

I turned my back on him, so he wouldn't see the growing doubt in my eyes.

From the chatter around me, I knew that my next fight was going to be the feature on the evening's card. At least, since I was slated to battle Ajax, I was not picking on a weaker opponent.  I performed the assigned exercises and a few of my own for good measure with unfeigned fervour. From the looks of him, Ajax was a few pounds heavier. Besides, he had far more fight experience than I. It would be a war.

The morning of the big fight, a man I had never seen before came through the kennels. He stared into each pen thoughtfully, sometimes offering a comment to the inhabitants. As he approached, I could see that he was tall, and his face bore a blaster scar running across the left cheek. Through his spiked, dark blue hair a pair of cosmetically-added silver horns poked up. On another man, these might have looked comical, but the air of menace that hung about him like a sinister cloak quenched any impulse for laughter. The blue hair and the blue-tinged skin spoke of Hybernic ancestry. My eyes narrowed as I thought carefully. This, then, must be Hermio Scava himself, the leader of the Scava Syndicate.

Hermio paused in front of the pen that held Ajax.

"I am counting on you to earn me some money this evening," he commented evenly.

Ajax's ducked his head, and his maddened eyes gleamed as he glared in my direction.
Hermio turned and faced my pen. "Achilles," he said, reading the nameplate emblazoned with the moniker my new handlers had bestowed upon me. He snorted with laughter. "That's rich." He laughed again, then spun and exited the room with a peacock's bold strut. My own eyes gleamed as I watched him go. To capture Hermio himself would make this whole mission worthwhile ten times over. Then I thought of the odds of the Earth-bound police forces ever tracking down the transmitter's ping out here in space, and my heart sank.

I turned to Aga, and met concerned brown eyes staring back from the other pen.

"What?" I said belligerently, determined not to let my feelings show. "I'm ready. It'll be tough, but I'm ready." I was more certain of that, in fact, than I was of Lennax ever finding me. Aga continued to stare at me, and I felt my confidence receding further, like an outgoing tide.

"There's something you need to know," Aga whispered, darting a glance across the way then leaning in close to ensure we would not be overheard. 

So that is how I, a canine officer pledged to fight crime and defend the peace, found himself pitted against other dogs in the fight ring. As the announcer continued to drone on, buying time for audience members to place their bets, I watched Ajax strut back and forth in his corner. His muscles bulged under his sleek black-and-tan hide, and his lips curled up, revealing long canines. His eyes were empty of even a spark of reason. 

At last, the bell sounded to begin the fight. We surged forward, and I felt the shock of his shoulder ramming into my chest. Soon the floor was speckled with blood. I was right, the other Shepherd was a difficult opponent. This forced me to use evasive techniques unique to police dog training, and I hoped no one would notice. Both of our coats became bloodied, and Ajax ripped open a long gash on my side. Still, I scored some points too, and I saw him stagger once, his confident expression replaced by one of surprise. I backed away to buy some space, and readied myself for another surge.

It was then that I felt an impact followed by a pricking sensation, like the sting of an insect, in the largest pad in my right rear paw. Like a glacier crawling through a valley, a deep chill began to spread, starting at the pinprick. I lost feeling at the base of my leg, and weakness crept up the limb. 

Just as Aga had warned, someone had taken steps to be very sure of the outcome. There must be money, lots of it, riding on this fight.
Ajax noted the break in the rhythm of my motion, and a smug look crept over his features. He strutted forward, taking advantage of the period of shock that normally overcame his victims at this juncture. This confident strut was his signature move, and it was usually followed by a rush that would knock his opponent to the ground.

But I wasn't shocked, thanks to Aga's warning. I was ready. I lunged at my opponent, propelling myself with a mighty thrust of my unaffected left hind leg. Using the last of my strength and willpower, I wrapped my jaws around Ajax's thick neck, from underneath. If I was going to die, I'd take him with me. I held tightly, and squeezed.

Ajax thudded to the floor, his eyes dull. I heard a roar of mingled disbelief and elation --depending on how they had placed their bets -- from the crowd. I sagged slowly until I found myself lying on top of my opponent.

That was the last thing I remembered for a space.

Consciousness returned in a trickle, one sensation at a time. I was lying on something hairy and, in places, wet. There was a stench of decay, and my throbbing body was one big ache. I could hear my breath rattle in my throat. 

With an effort, I forced my eyes open, then shut them quickly.

I recognized where I was.

I'd heard the other dogs talking about The Room. It was the place where the dead and dying were discarded, with as little respect for their bodies as one might have for a piece of garbage, to await their final destination -- the incinerator. Taken for dead and tossed here, I was lying on those of my fellows who had breathed their last. 

I closed my eyes again, listening. The room was quiet for a moment, aside from my pained breathing.

My ears twitched. I could hear the scuffing of boots as two men approached.

" . . .  Regardless, we have a job to do, Niva." I recognized the voice as Kwok's. He was one of the Scava employees assigned to clean the kennels, a task he undertook far too infrequently and with little enthusiasm. "Best to dispose of any evidence. That's the protocol." 

"Who's going to come snooping around?" Niva grumbled. "And once we get underway . . ."

"With the Boss's mood tonight, you're arguing about whether to do your job?" Kwok's tone was mocking. "He's looking for an excuse to inflict pain on someone. I heard he'd bet -- "

A tremor ran through the ship, followed by the boom! of a muffled explosion. I lifted my head. The lights flickered, then died, replaced by the wan glow of emergency lighting.

Without a word, Niva and Kwok raced off in the direction from which they had come.

My first response was elation. Did this mean the mission had been successful after all -- that the ship had been located?

I thought of the remoteness of the kill room, tucked away here on a far, hidden corner. They'll never find me here in time. I felt myself slipping back into a stupor, and didn't bother to fight for consciousness.

"Achilles," I felt hot breath on my muzzle, and twitched my nose. "Achilles."

My species believes that when the time comes for our spirit to return Home, the wind whispers our name to us, so that we know. I pondered this belief as I lay still, achingly aware of all the rents and tears and bruises inflicted upon my body. Was this the wind, calling me?

Feeling another puff of warm air on my snout, I wrinkled my nose, filtering the scents. Surely, the wind that called our souls home would not carry the smell of kibble on its breath . . . and my true name was not Achilles.

I opened my eyes slowly, and blinked to clear my vision. A furred face that was half white, half black, and wearing a decidedly worried expression seemed suspended in space about a foot from my muzzle.

"Aga," I croaked.

The other shook himself. "My name is Cybee," he said. "I remember now." His eyes glowed with pride. 

I nodded, and felt a wave of pain and nausea sweep through my body in protest against that small motion. I closed my eyes.

"You must hold on," he continued. "Hold tight. I have brought help."

He woofed, sharply, and I heard human footfalls echoing down the corridor once again. They were purposeful strides, but they lacked the hurry of men under duress. 

Though my entire body still ached and my fur felt disgustingly blood-matted in several locations, I struggled to raise myself into a sphinx-like position. 

A tall, blonde-haired man clad in the bulky, black combat gear favoured by the law enforcement agents in our Precinct strode into the room. He was trailed by a grey-eyed, grey-haired man of average height, wearing the dark blue uniform of the Galactic Space Service. So that was how they'd found me.

"There's our agent," the taller man gestured toward me with his chin. "We'd never have found him without this one," he nodded toward Cybee.

His companion let his hand fall on Cybee's head in a gentle caress. "We came looking for an agent, and found two," he remarked, studying the black and white dog.

They returned their attention to me.

"PD looks like he's hurt pretty badly. I'm not sure he'll make it," the tall man said. "Maybe it would be more merciful to end it for him, especially since his handler Lennax was one of the men killed when we took down the power generator . . . "

I took in a sharp breath, hearing that, and felt my ribs ache. Lennax had come, after all. He had come . . . and he had died. I whimpered, then howled, a long, wavering eerie cry that nonetheless failed to adequately convey the depth of my misery.

"Broken things can heal, sometimes," the grey-haired man observed, taking a step closer. His voice was heavy with an undertone of yearning, as if he was trying to convince himself.

"He's due for retirement, anyway," the first man stated. "I heard Smitwick say this would be his last assignment. I'm not sure the Department . . . "

"I'll be retiring in a few months," Harris whirled to glare at him. "I don't see anyone rushing to put a bullet between my eyes. Besides, I know just the person to nurse him back to health, if he can make it." His voice gentled. "He's one of us, and he completed his assignment. He deserves a chance."

Harris approached the grim pile that served as my resting spot. "I have a granddaughter, Larissa, you see," he said, addressing his words to me. I studied his face, noting the shadow of a deep sadness in his grey eyes. "She's lost someone important, too. I think the two of you could help each other heal." He paused, his mouth twitching with suppressed emotion. Then his voice rapped out with a businesslike snap, "Officer, do you accept the assignment?"

I paused for a moment, considering. Lennax was gone, yes, and it would take some time for me to process that loss. Yet, I had a sense that it was not yet time for me to set my paws along the dark and final road down which I had launched so many others in the past weeks. Besides, surely Lennax would not have wanted to come all this way to find me, only to have me give up on life.

I drew a breath, as deep as my aching sides would permit, then woofed once. I accept.

So much emotion, so much pain. Sighing, I let my eyelids close. I felt gentle hands lifting me onto a hoverstretcher, then experienced a floating sensation as the 'stretcher floated down the corridor.

I felt my battered body lapse toward unconsciousness, and didn't fight. This time, that choice was not out of despair -- I knew that I would awaken again. 

I thought back upon the darkness of the soul I had felt, so many nights, surrounded by others of my kind yet deeply alone. I had gotten through it by telling myself that everything would be alright. 

Now, I truly believed that once again. That was blessing enough, for now.

If you enjoyed this, you will also enjoy Roxy, also by Lisa Timpf.