Alright, here it is: The Dogs of War, part the Second (which is still very PG-13. I said that already, right?). It's also the single longest entry I've ever posted, by a good margin.
Let's hope it was worth the wait!
The full-sized, full color illustration (colored in on my new tablet
) can be found HERE
The first sense Duke regained when he returned to consciousness was smell. Acrid smoke seared his nose and burned its way down his throat. He coughed violently, and the sound echoed faintly in his ringing ears. His eyes flew open, and almost immediately slammed shut again against the omnipresent smoke.
Duke could feel his heart pounding in his ears, each thud sending a fresh bolt of pain through his skull. Faintly, he could hear the muted, distant sounds of shouting and the steady thuds of gunfire.
Slowly, Duke pushed himself up off the metal surface that he'd awoken on. The effort reawakened a thousand aching pains all over his body. But he managed to prop himself up on his side and open his watering eyes long enough to take stock of the situation.
The Humvee had been tipped over on its side by the force of the blast. Through the stinging smoke, he could see that most of the vehicle's engine had been reduced to scrap, every window shattered. The inert forms of Corporal Evanko and Private Vourlis were slumped over on their sides, but Sergeant Anselmo was nowhere to be seen.
Duke coughed violently yet again. Bolts of pain shot through his side, and for a moment his vision swam dangerously. Slowly, he pulled himself up into a crouch, then tried to stand.
Faintly, he heard a clanking sound coming from his left. Duke jumped up, yanking his combat knife out of its sheath... and nearly collapsed again. He looked back up in time to see the Humvee's roof hatch be torn away, letting in a blaze of sunlight.
Silhouetted by the blinding white light was Sergeant Anselmo.
“Duke!” the man roared, though the sound was muted in the German Shepherd's damaged ear drums. “Glad to see you're still kickin'. Help me get them out!”
Duke nodded sharply, pushing himself up again. He sliced Vourlis' seatbelt with the knife, then hoisted the man up so Anselmo could pull him out of the burning vehicle. Ignoring the aching pain that had begin to spread though his body, he sliced Corporal Evanko out of his seat and hauled him out. When the unconscious man was finally out in the sunlight, Duke got a good look at him. What he saw made him cringe.
Sergeant Anselmo had a similar reaction. “Frak,” he muttered. “This doesn't look good.” Unlike Vourlis, Anselmo, and Duke himself, Corporal Evanko's injuries were serious. A deep gash was visible on his chest, and his face was colored a ghostly white.
“Duke!” Sergeant Anselmo's voice pulled the German Shepherd back to reality. “We're not safe here. There's cover about fifteen meters that way.” He gestured towards a large rocky outcropping. “You take Vourlis, I'll get Evanko. On my mark, we make a run for it. Understood?”
Duke nodded wordlessly, slinging Private Vourlis' arm over his shoulder. Anselmo placed a hand on Duke's shoulder, then pressed a nine millimeter pistol into his paw. “Once we're put in the open, there's gonna be shooting.” He hoisted Corporal Evanko over one shoulder and slung the strap on his M-16 over the other. “You go first. I'll give you some covering fire. Ready?”
Duke glanced at Private Vourlis, making sure he was in as secure of a position as possible. He didn't particularly like the man, but he hardly wanted to see him dead. Then, he flicked the safety off the pistol and looked back up at Sergeant Anselmo. “Ready.”
The man nodded tersely. “Good. On three.”
Duke dug his feet into the hot sand, looking out at the rock with narrowed eyes.
To the west, a small group of shabbily dressed men wielding assault rifles emerged from over the top of a sand dune. One of them pointed at Duke and Sergeant Anselmo and shouted something unintelligible.
Duke felt his stomach clench. He looked over at Anselmo with an edge of panic showing in his eyes. “Sergeant-”
A bullet whizzed past his ear and clanged off the metal frame of the Humvee. Sergeant Anselmo sprang into action. “Two three GO!” He pushed off and sprinted off across the ground, spraying clouds of sand out behind him. Duke followed right on his heels.
Every step sent another wave of pain rolling up his side. The ten meters to the rock might as well have been a thousand miles. Private Vourlis dragged along at his side, nearly two hundred pounds of dead weight holding him back. The German Shepherd gritted his teeth, folded his ears back, and pushed on.
Duke was faintly aware of Sergeant Anselmo's machine gun barking out a burst of semi-automatic fire. The insurgents coming over the hill shot back. Most of the shots went wide, but a few dug themselves into the ground around Duke's feet.
Sergeant Anselmo tripped, stumbled, and fell forward into the hot sand just feet away from the rock. Corporal Evanko's inert body rolled off to the side. Crap.
Duke all but sprinted the last few steps, hastily depositing Private Vourlis under the cover of the outcropping before turning back to Anselmo. “Sergeant! Are you all right?” He grabbed the man's side and pulled, hauling him over onto his back. He cursed silently at what he saw.
A blossom of red was beginning to spread from a small hole in the side of his vest. The man looked up at Duke with a pained grimace. “They got me good,” he groaned. With a great effort, he pulled himself up onto his elbows and let Duke help him lean up against the side of the rock.
The German Shepherd made to tear aside Anselmo's blouse and get a better look at the wound, but the man smacked his paw away. “No time,” he hissed. His breath was coming in short, shallow gulps that sent sent pained spasms across his face.
Duke reached again for Anselmo's collar, more firmly this time. “Sergeant, with all due respect, this is serious.”
“I said,” Anselmo gasped. “that there's no time for that. I... I radioed in our position. Backup'll be here any minute. Until then, we've got insurgents coming our way. We just gotta.... Agh!” Anselmo clutched at his chest. Duke placed both paws firmly on the man's shoulders to steady him. He leaned in closer, looking at the man with widened eyes.
“Sergeant! Are you all right?”
Anselmo only shook his head sluggighly. “I'm... I'll be fine, Duke. We've just gotta... hold 'em off.” He tried to push himself up and off the ground, but collapsed back with a muffled cry. When tried to pull himself up again, Duke forcibly held him down.
“Sergeant! Please. You're hurt. Stay down.” Anselmo nodded weakly, and allowed Duke to roll him over onto his side. With that done, the German Shepherd straightened up and tried to take stock of his situation. His three companions couldn't help him. The backup Anselmo had promised was noticeably absent. And not 100 meters away, there were a group of armed soldiers that were out for his blood.
For all intents and purposes, he was alone.
With another round of echoing cracks, a spray of bullets peppered the sand around him. Duke plastered himself back against the rock, trying desperately to keep his heart from pounding its way out of his chest. He fumbled awkwardly for the pistol Anselmo had given him, surveying the area while he did so.
Far down the road, he could see the faint, shimmering outlines of a few more Humvees coming up the road. Salvation! It was all Duke could do to restrain himself from dashing out across the open sand to meet the reinforcements coming his way. There were only two thoughts that stopped him. One: if I break cover now, I'll almost certainly be gunned down before I make it three steps.
He cast his gaze across the the injured and unconscious Marines at his side, feeling a pang of worry when Anselmo let out a pained groan. Two: if I leave, Anselmo, Vourlis, and Evanko will almost certainly be killed.
Duke's ears folded back, the fur on the back of his neck stood on end, and a growl rumbled the back of his throat. He couldn't let that happen.
With a burst of adrenaline, Duke pulled the M-16 out of Anselmo's slackened grip, discarding the relatively tiny handgun before clicking off the safety and propping the weapon up on top of the rock. He gazed down the rifle's sights with narrowed eyes at the soldiers coming his way.
One pointed at him. The group halted. In unison, they dropped to one knee and raised their weapons. Duke squeezed down on the trigger. The weapon barked out a deafening series of shots that peppered the sand around the armed insurgents. A few of them jumped backwards and fell into the sand, leaving the small unit in disarray.
Duke looked at his handiwork with a grim sense of satisfaction. The weapon's recoil had nearly knocked him over backwards, but that could be remedied easily enough. Ignoring the ringing in his ears, he widened his stance, brought the rifle up to his shoulder, glared down the barrel at the rapidly reorganizing soldiers, and fired again. And again. And again. Until...
Duke blinked, glancing down at the weapon in his hands, then back up at the soldiers on the dune up ahead. He'd emptied the entire thirty round magazine, but they were still coming. Still in full-on “attack mode”, Duke yanked the spent clip out of the rifle. He was trying to fish a fresh one out of Anselmo's vest when he heard the tell-tale sound of a Humvee's engine roaring his way. Duke looked up in time to see a trio of armored vehicles skid to a halt in a rough semi-circle around the outcropping, sending clouds of sand drifting downwind.
Before the vehicles had even come to a stop, a tall, dark-skinned man in full combat gear leaped out of the passenger's seat, slammed the door behind him, and sprinted over to Duke's position. He crouched down in the sand and tossed the dog a full clip before clicking on his headset.
“Two, Three, Four and Five, suppressing fire!” he roared into the mic. “Six and Seven, we've got wounded! Get 'em outta here!” He clicked off the headset and looked over at Duke, who had reloaded his weapon and was waiting for orders. “Walters, give 'em some cover.”
Duke nodded sharply. “Oorah, Sergeant Towser.” He stood, shouldering the assault rifle. More Marines were disembarking from the Humvees and moving into position behind the outcropping and in other defensible positions. Sergeant Towser barked out a terse command. The soldiers all dropped to one knee and raised their weapons. An instant later, the deafening clatter of machine gun fire filled the air.
A pair of those Marines jogged over to where Duke was standing with his injured squad-mates. They moved quickly, slinging Corporal Evanko's arms over their shoulders and pulling him off toward the opened back of one of the nearest vehicles. Duke followed after them, staring coolly down the barrel of Anselmo's M-16 at the rapidly disintegrating group of insurgents at the top of the hill.
They had gotten Evanko and Vourlis safely to the vehicle and were beginning to pick up Anselmo when Duke's ear twitched to the left. He rapidly turned in the direction of the noise to see a man with a shroud of cloth covering his face lurking behind a burnt-out Humvee.
Duke saw the man heft a long metal tube, sliding a a bulbous projectile into the end before raising it to his shoulder. He swung it slowly to the left, stopping with the end trained on the group of Marines. He's got an RPG!
Duke shoved past one of the soldiers in his path, ignoring the man's protests. He clicked the M-16's firing mode to full-auto. Firing from the hip, he let an erratic burst of bullets fly. The shots went wide, but they came close enough to make RPG-man dive for cover.
Fifty yards to go. Duke dodged past a pile of shrapnel, then squeezed down again on the rifle's trigger.
Click. Jammed. Crap.
Duke spat out a curse. No time to clear it. He chucked the now-useless weapon off to the side and sprinted onward.
Thirty yards. The man with the grenade launcher was scrambling back to his feet, fumbling desperately with his bulky weapon. Duke narrowed his eyes. There was time. He could make it. The hot sand slipped and slid under his feet, but if he could just run a little faster-
Twenty yards. Duke looked up to see the man pull himself up on one knee and take aim. One shot left. Duke yanked his combat knife out of its sheath, pinched the blade between two fingers, and threw it.
The knife arced through through the air, tumbling end over end. Its blade found Duke's target, slicing deep into the man's shoulder. With a cry, the man stumbled back, letting his weapon's nose dip forward. His hand slipped, and he pulled the trigger.
With a deceptively quiet hiss, the rocket shot out.
Duke flung himself forward, tucking his head into his chest and folding his arms behind his head. He'd only just brushed up against the sand when a blast split the air and sent him spiraling into the dark.
Duke awoke to the sensation of someone scratching him behind the ears. With a muffled groan, he rolled over onto his side, raising a leaden arm to brush the hand aside. When the mysterious ear-scratcher persisted, Duke let his arm fall limp at his side. Besides, it did feel kind of nice. “Whozzat?” he slurred.
“Well, well, well, look who's finally up.” The man's voice sounded tinny and distant, as though he were hearing an echo from deep inside a sewer pipe. Duke rolled over onto his back again, pried open his eyelids, and looked up.
Slowly, the face of a grey-haired, grizzled man who wore a pair of glasses and a friendly smile came into focus above him. “Duke, my name is Doctor Coe. Can you hear me?” The voice was still faint in his ears, but Duke nodded weakly all the same. The man nodded thoughtfully, then scribbled down a few notes on his clipboard. Next, he fished a small flashlight out of his pocket, clicked it on, and held it out over Duke's face. “Follow the light, please.” He began to slowly swing the beam back and forth.
The Shepherd squinted against the temporarily blinding light, but did as he was told. After a moment, the man clicked off the beam and jotted down a few more notes.
Duke waited for a moment to make sure the man wasn't looking, then tried to sit up. A sudden explosion of pain in the back of his skull put a quick end to that idea. He sank back into the hospital bed with a pained moan.
“Yeah, I wouldn't recommend that,” said the man without looking up from his clipboard. “You've got a fairly nasty concussion, multiple hairline fractures, some minor internal bleeding, and multiple scrapes and bruises.” He looked back up and reached over to put a reassuring hand on Duke's shoulder. “And if you're having some hearing issues, that's because your eardrums are more or less shot. There shouldn't be any permanent damage, though.”
“Great,” Duke groaned. He fell silent for a moment before his eyes flew wide open. He looked up Doctor Coe with alarm. “Wait, what happened to-”
The doctor interrupted him. “Everyone from your unit is just fine. Corporal Evanko and Private Vourlis are resting a few rooms over.”
“But... what about Sergeant Anselmo?”
Doctor Coe waved the question away. “Well, they've scheduled him for some minor surgery later today.” When Duke tried to shove himself up again, he reached out with one hand and gently held him down. “He'll be fine, though. Trust me,” the doctor chuckled. “The man's the biggest hardcuss I've ever had the good fortune to meet. He ain't gonna let a little thing like getting shot in the chest hold him back for too long.” Doctor Coe scribbled down a few more notes. “So they're all fine. It's you everyone's talking about.”
Duke looked up at the man with confusion. “Me? What did I do?”
There was a faint sound of a pencil tip snapping. Doctor Coe looked up at the German Shepherd with incredulity etched into every square inch of his face. “What did you do? You pulled two of your squad-mates out of a burning Humvee, held off a group of thirty armed insurgents alone, and then apparently attempted to tackle someone who was wielding a rocket propelled grenade launcher.” Doctor Coe slowly shook his head back and forth, looking down at Duke with a broad grin. “The higher-ups have been practically falling over themselves to recommend you for awards. The British base heard about it, and they want to give you the Dickin Medal. I heard Corporal Clevinger saying something about the Bronze Star...”
All Duke could do was listen to what he was being told with slack-jawed amazement. “I... I just did what I had to do,” he said sheepishly.
“I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Don't be so modest, boy!” Sergeant Anselmo rolled into the room on a wheelchair. He had a large bandage wrapped around his chest and one of his legs was in a brace, but if the wide grin etched into his face was anything to go by, he was none the worse for wear.
Doctor Coe rolled his eyes. “Jim, I though I told you to stay in bed,” he said in a tired voice without turning around. Despite his irritated tone, a faint smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
“Bah. Sleep is for the weak, comrade. Besides,” He rolled over to the side of Duke's bed and gave the dog a quick scratch behind the ears. “I had to stop by. I was a bit too busy writhing in pain to say it earlier, Duke, but you really saved our bacon out there.”
Duke's smile was faint, but his tail had begun to twitch eagerly underneath him. “Thanks, but it was really the only thing I could have done. I didn't actually think about it like that at all.”
Anselmo made a dismissive gesture. “You kept your cool in a tough situation. That's what matters. There are plenty of dogs who would have run away with their tails between their legs, but-”
“That was an awful pun, Jim,” Doctor Coe cut in. “Really, what would compel you to say that?”
“Can it, Dan.” Anselmo cast the doctor a mock-serious glare. “As I was saying, you didn't cave under pressure. Doesn't matter if you set out to be a hero, that's what you turned out to be.”
For a moment, Duke really didn't know what to say. “Well... thank you, Sergeant. That means a lot.”
“Now,” Anselmo clapped his hands together and twisted his lips into a smug grin. “Let's get Private Vourlis over here and tell him all about how 'Rover' from the 'Mutt Patrol' saved his sorry skin. He's been asleep for long enough, hasn't he?”
“Alright, alright.” Doctor Coe got to his feet with an exasperated sigh and grabbed the handles of Anselmo's wheelchair. “If you insist on depriving yourself of rest, that's fine, but my patients happen to need it.”
“Aw, come one, Dan, don't do this,” Anselmo groaned as the doctor wheeled him over to the door.
“Out, out!” The doctor sent Anselmo rolling out into the hall and slammed the door shut behind him. For a few moments, the only sound in the room was the sound of Doctor Coe shuffling papers. “Now, let's see...” He scribbled out a couple of sentences no Duke's file. “Private Duke Walters... bed-rest... next three to five days... at his present rate of recovery.” He tore that sheet off and set it aside.
“Now, just one more thing before I let you get to sleep.” He scooped up a thin sheaf of papers and plopped himself down in the swivel chair alongside Duke's bed. “You've got a couple of messages. Want to see them?”
Duke shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
“Alright,” the doctor said, holding up the first sheet. “We've got one here from a 'Phillip Walters'.”
“Dad called?” Duke looked up hopefully at the doctor.
Doctor Coe shrugged. “If Phillip Walters is 'Dad”, then I suppose he did. Would you like to see it?” He held out the sheet to Duke, who eagerly snatched it up. "We had to contact him and tell him about your injuries. You might want to call him back later. You know, assure him that you're not dead. He didn't seem to want to take the nurse's word for it, but you were out cold at the time." The doctor shrugged. "But for now, rest, m'kay?”
"But..." Duke sighed. Well, he supposed that Doctor Coe was right. If couldn't even sit up without feeling like someone was digging around in the back of his skull with an ice-pick, it probably would be best to try and get some sleep. He flipped the man a lazy salute before rolling over on his side. With a quiet laugh, Doctor Coe stepped out of the ward, closing the door behind him.
Slowly, Duke let the soft darkness embrace him. A moment later, he was fast asleep.
Autuor's Nose Author's Notes:
Couple of things. One, the Dickin Medal
is essentially the Victoria Cross for animals (the Victoria Cross being the British equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor). And yes, the end is a rather obvious sequel hook. I do plan on revisiting this, though not for a little while. And probably without an illustration accompanying each entry. It was fun, but it took more time.
Recursion is up next, and it's going to rather different from anything I've posted so far. One, it'll be in the first person, and two, it's going to be metafiction. Which is to say, Housepets fanfiction about Housepets fanfiction. Hence the title.