JT Gill

January 15, 2023

Carlisle—the hulking guard from D Wing—wakes me with a grunt and a nudge.

“Warden needs you,” he rumbles, his black form shifting in the darkness.

I dress in the dark, Carlisle’s silhouette at the door, arms crossed. My optic reads 3:42 AM, which narrows the realm of possibilities as to what this is about… though I have a guess.

We march down the hallway, fluorescents sizzling overhead. The monitor at the end of the hall is offline—flaccid, pointing at the floor. Rehabilitation centers are low on the current System Administrator’s list of priorities. Over the past three years, Chamberlain Rehab Center’s budget has been slashed four times, and between the lights and the security, you can almost hear the money escaping. There’s even a rumor going around some inmates might be released altogether, their sentences commuted, though I find that hard to believe.

The courtyard shines like a sungun. It’s snowing, big flakes drifting through the whitelight orbs. Shivering, I zip my cryocloak to the neck as we head for the administration building… but Carlisle surprises me, pivoting towards D Wing instead. I jog to keep up.

“Thought the Warden wanted to see me,” I say.

Carlisle grunts, a cloud of steam billowing around his face.

I hadn’t much interaction with any of the guards, least of all Carlisle, but I know two things: the Warden likes him, and he has a penchant for emphatic rehabilitation. It’s not my department, but I’ve seen one or two inmates leave D Wing in medpods, usually with blood caked to their skulls.

Inside, the wing is silent. Our footsteps echo on the smartfloor, lightprints rippling in our wake. The cell blocks are split in six directions. A central hub with narrow brick and glass canyon spokes.

The lights are all on, and the cells are transparent, most of the inmates in bed, their neon jumpsuits like garish paint stains. Each one’s colors coded based on the severity of their crimes. Red are severe, life sentences and death row. Orange is more moderate. Armed robbery, hit and run. Ten to thirty years.

D Wing is mostly reds.

The Warden is pacing at the end of the fourth spoke, her heels jabbing the floor. Even at four in the morning, she’s dressed in a smart pencil skirt and gray blazer, her hair wrenched back in a chopsticks-skewered bun. A couple of Administrator officials stand by, one young, one old, staring into space while they check their optics. As we approach, their gazes sharpen, the milky glaze fading from their pupils.

“Paulson,” the Warden says.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Are your Hounds ready?”

“What’s the situation?”

She nods to Carlisle. Explain.

Carlisle juts his chin to the cell block adjacent us. “Prisoner 392 escaped sometime between nightly check-in and midnight patrol.”

I wait, thinking he might want to add some color. Like maybe who Prisoner 392 was, or what he was in for… but Carlisle confirms what I already know: He’s not one for words.

I gaze in, enjoying the smell of Lysol and limes. Their eyes are on me.

The job is easy. The Hounds will hunt him down within an hour, hardly worth my time.

Unless there’s something special about this one. Besides, I don’t get chances like this often. I can’t help myself.

“So?” I say.

Carlisle stiffens, but the Warden’s hand goes up like a portcullis.

“I’ve heard rumors we’re losing our funding,” I say. “An escaped inmate seems like an easy way to cut costs.” I grin. “Unless this one’s special.”

This time it’s one of the suits who speaks up. The old one. Broken spider web wisps of hair cling to his scalp.

“I wouldn’t impute motives on the Administrator’s office,” he says, chewing chapped lips.

I keep my eyes on the warden. She can’t say why I’m really here, not in front of these men, but we both know.

“Every inmate in this rehabilitation center represents an investment,” she says. “An opportunity.” I catch the shimmer in her eye as she steps closer.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say.

* * *

I was sitting on the edge of my front porch when the mech officer came up the lane, rolling through the gravel on bipedal treads. I knew what was coming, but I forced myself to sit there and listen to every word of that pre-recorded message so many heard that day: your son has been killed in service of his country.

I asked what happened. An ambush on Junger. The Massacre.

The memory stings like the wind as I trudge past the recreation fields.

We keep the Hounds in a locked shed out here, beyond the grounds and the whitelights of the main courtyard. Away from the warmth. Even in the folds of my cryocloak, the wind’s kisses are like those of an unwanted ex. I focus on what I can control. Tracks. Exposure. Somewhere out there 392 is slowing down.

The shed is a momentary relief from the cold. Inside, the Hounds are clamped in their charging stations—spindly mech legs curled up and over their central nervous systems like dead spiders. I go down the line, punching the upboot for each. Photoreceptors come to life, strobing piss yellow as their servo motors sputter into action, grinding against the cold.

Dolly, Denver… and Duke.

Signal lights slide to blue as they connect to the network. Carlisle uploaded temporary access to 392’s file. I open it through my optic.

Inmate data floods the system, everything we have on 392. Injections, blood types, medication, preferences, criminal history. I tab the surveillance footage and check the vids.

He’s tall, lanky. Tattoos etched up the back of his neck, right arm replaced with a pneumatic claw. Red jumpsuit when he enters for nightly check-in. Nothing out of place… and then the feed goes dark.

I gnaw the inside of my cheek. As much as I’d like to believe this an oddity, it’s not. Feeds go dark. Blame it on the budget cuts. If prisoners knew how often it happened, we’d have trouble preventing everyone from attempting to escape.

The Hounds send out a signal, a single synchronous bark. Duke bumps against his restraint clamp. I strap a pair of tracking goggles over my head, slip the detonator in the pocket of my cryocloak, and hop on the speedcycle at the back of the shed.

“All right,” I say. “Let’s go catch this… opportunity.”

I key open the door and release their clamps. The four of us tear out into the snow.

* * *

Watching a Hound move is like watching a demon. They’re fast and gangling and move in a kind of fluid treachery, servo motors whining, legs snickering together when in full gallop.

At top speed, I’ve tracked them at 65 kph, but that’s when they’ve locked a signal.

All inmates are given a tracking injection upon arrival. It enters the bloodstream and cycles into permanent stasis, barring a blood transfusion. I’ve only seen one escapee get beyond the grounds, and that was before the Hound program came to Chamberlain, back when Carlisle and his cronies oversaw prisoner recapture.

That particular inmate avoided the search team for 17 hours. They couldn’t match his signal—just kept circling before they stumbled on him passed out against a tree in a pool of his own blood, a sharpened stick protruding from his wrist.

So there really is no way of getting the injection out without killing yourself.

The Hounds fan out. I stick with Denver, running scans as we barrel through the cold, searching for a lock. His range is limited due to the snow, but a momentary break in the clouds gives him something.

My optic chimes as crosshairs fall, screwing down over the signal.

A few klicks west.

Denver barks, rearing back on his single hind leg before he bolts, galloping between the trees, throwing up white clouds in his wake. Duke and Dolly slide in on either side, the three of them forming a triangle, tearing through the woods with electrifying intensity.

I’d love to admire them run, but I figure it can’t hurt to redeem the time reviewing 392’s file instead.

The entry picture is a mug of his drab face. Pale and sunken. The tattoo is invisible from the front, but along the back you can see it’s a dog, staring with baleful eyes and droopy ears.

It’s a bit of a sob story, his file. Ex-military, which is sad, because there’s no fixing army brats. They get out, flinching and flexing with their PTSD and concussion history and soon they come riding our way, clamps circling their wrists and baleful eyes of their own.

He’s been in for seven years, which is more than long enough, except he saw combat. Front lines. Boots on the ground for the Dahlia Invasion, and…

And then I stop, because this guy was stationed on Junger… The Massacre.

I swallow, and tab the realclip from his helm-cam.

Women, children fleeing while he pants, turning one way, then the other. Someone falls in front of him, sloshing through a plum-colored puddle. An enormous plume of orange and white blooms in the distance.

I turn it off when a chainsaw starts to grind.

It was a month before I ventured outside the house, after the news. I had realclips of my little boy, a stock of brandy in the basement, and the same detonator I keep in my pocket now. Those were dark nights… and then… like an extended hand, an opportunity from Chamberlain Rehabilitation Center, and a way out. A way back into the world.

My world erupts in a thundercrack and everything falls into slow motion as my vision doubles.

My optic autocloses the file, the HUD kicking into action. Dolly disappears in an enormous mushroom cloud to my left. I hear the final shriek of metal pulping her to bits before one of her front legs, sheared off at the calf, flies from the cloud. End over end, it collides with the front of my cycle, splintering the forward repulsor.

A queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I go over the handlebars and then everything is silent and there’s only optics. Sky. Trees. Snow.

The world goes dark.

* * *

The signal was weak, but there. Like finding the heartbeat on an ultrasound. Connected to the maindrive, I could communicate with him—blips of encrypted green scrolling in the black. Hours in the shed, that final line of text like a ray of sun: what about you?

My cryocloak’s shot. First thing through my head. Like a boot plunged shin-deep in icy water, the cold seeps in from every direction at once. First, it’s numbing, then torturous. My ears ring a single note refrain.

Flakes are raining from the trees in powdery clouds. My nostrils flare with the smell of burnt metal.

I try to move my arms and legs, but I’m half buried. My optic’s glitching, which is a concussion indicator. Blinking, I wriggle free. Duke and Denver hold position a few meters off, waiting for orders. They’re grouped around a blackened hole in the snow, smoke streaming from it like a just-erupted volcano. Scattered flaming tongues flicker around the perimeter.


The shipment came in late, the delivery truck hacking as it downshifted through the dropgate. They dropped her on the pavement behind the service entrance, curled in stasis like a dead spider. I wasn’t impressed. But when it started to rain, the drops tinkling her metal frame, she blinked to life.

I kneel beside Duke and Denver, staring down into the crater.

Amidst the shards of ash and metal, a single photoreceptor gazes back up at us, glowing blue. I shiver, trying not to think about the kind of trauma she felt. The central housing’s well protected, but nothing can save you from that kind of blast.

Duke and Denver connect to my optic. They’re running coms, scanning the area. I’m sure Carlisle and whoever else is doing the same.

As if summoned, Carlisle appears, a holo spirit in the smoke.

“We lost your feed,” he says.

“I lost one of the Hounds,” I say, trying to keep my voice steady. “Looks like a bomb.”

His reflection warbles, splicing. “You still have the other two. Find him,” he says, and his face drifts, leaving me, Duke, and Denver alone in the woods.

* * *

Based on the blast radius, this wasn’t a home protection civilian mine. The fire’s still burning steady when I finally find the cycle, buried in a drift thirty meters from the crater.

It’s trashed. Not worth patching. Which leaves me with two options: I can walk, or I can ride with one of the Hounds.

My optic’s still glitching, playing warped images across my field of view. From what I can tell, the signal’s farther now.

I opt for the Hounds, climbing aboard Denver. His onboard engine is like a heat stove.

We’re limited, with me on his back, so while Denver and I canter along, Duke blazes back off, driven by that singular focus he’s always had.

* * *

The whir of engine parts as he comes alive. The new leg scrabbles, twitches, and then he’s up, hulking high like the bots they pit against humans in the underground. That might have been the miracle… and then came those scrolling lines of code.

The ad read: “Lab technician. Competitive pay + benefits. Interact with the machinery responsible for protecting the attendees.”

Sitting across the table from the Warden, my face clean-shaven for the first-time in weeks. She offered me the job on the spot. I started the next day, and as promised, they brought me Duke. He was missing a leg, but otherwise in good condition.

I worked on him for two weeks before we spoke. A new leg shipped in from Vankirk. Photoreceptors from Busteen. A little at a time. Long days spent in the shed, tinkering on the central nervous system, watching how-to videos, eager and anxious.

And then of course came Dolly and Denver.

I was the one who was there when Duke walked for the first time. I saw when Dolly perked, suddenly aware of the prisoners’ signals in the yard. And when Denver stepped in front of an inmate who tried to rush me in the rec yard, a shiv up his sleeve.

That’s why I stayed. It was for them.

* * *

My optic is glitching again when Duke goes dark, but even with the signal break a hollow feeling opens in the pit of my stomach.

Denver senses it too, pulling up short, as if listening.

For a moment it’s utterly quiet, the world shrouded in a white blanket.

And then Denver is off and running, out into the open, and we see a pillar of smoke rising in the distance.

I can’t speak, can’t move. I’m losing my boy all over again. It’s the same as Dolly, ash and snow falling back to earth down in the valley below. I get that same sick just-erupted volcano feeling again, and when Denver bolts all I can do is cling on, numb fingers digging into warm metal. Between his jolting and the glitch in my optic, it’s hard to determine exactly how far he is, but moving this fast I know it won’t matter.

Duke’s nowhere to be seen. The crater’s dead center of a clearing this time, smoke billowing into the sky, inky thick with altitude.

My optic spasms, hard enough to make me wince. But when it clears and Duke’s signal appears on the map again, he isn’t anywhere near us.

He’s nearly five klicks away, and I breathe a sigh of relief.

Of hope.

A flicker of movement to my right.

I turn. Not fast enough. 392’s pneumatic claw connects with the side of my skull like a wrecker. Pain ripples down my right side. My optic blares static. Something sticky and warm in my eyes as I hit the ground. A wet shard feeling of snow pressed against my face.

Somehow, I’m still conscious. Denver is spidertromping through the snow, lurching over me with scissor-snickering limbs. I push myself up onto all fours and my vision tunnels into blackness… but I breathe, force myself back awake.

Inmate 392 is a blur of speed as he spins, shimmies, ducks everything Denver sends at him. Denver’s every movement should kill him, slice him in half. His mandibles clip the air, snapping like pinchers. Legs whickering in deadly arcs.

But 392’s a phantom. It’s like watching a choreographed dance, snow spitting, spinning in every direction, that pneumatic claw pistoning, working, whining.

I’m watching, not comprehending much besides movement, pushing myself backwards, away from the combat.

I make it to a tree, and things start to make more sense as my vision returns. Denver chirruping behind me. Optic back online. Carlisle in my face.

“What’s happening?”

I close him out and send a ping to Duke, hear the chime in my head as he responds. Slumping down against the tree, I grab handfuls of snow and pack them against the side of my throbbing, sodden head. In my wake, a blood-stained trail, bright as a Chamberlain jumpsuit.

It’s sad, watching how it all unfolds. 392’s like a dancing boxer, breaking in and out, hammering blows with that claw. Punching through a leg, denting his carapace.

If he can hold out for Duke, though. He’ll be here in seconds, and quick as 392 may be, he’s no match for the two of them at once.

It’s as if 392 has heard me thinking. He slips one arm between Denver’s legs, reaching for the photoreceptor.

The sound of my own breathing as Duke approaches on the optic. I should be doing something. I should be helping. My head throbs.

And that’s when I hear it.

Denver keens, and it’s like no sound I’ve heard before. I whip my head around and watch as 392 bares his teeth. He’s gotten his arm inside, gotten hold of something deep.

I push myself up against the tree, yelling.

A wrenching sound. The shrieking scream of metal on metal as 392 pulls away, teeth barred.

Denver’s photoreceptor comes with it, the pulsing eye on the end and what looks like a squid of wires mixed with a pulpy, bloody mass.

Denver’s brain.

I watch in horror as the light drains from his photoreceptor, and then I’m up, staggering forward, but I can feel the blood rushing to my head, and I hardly see when 392 tosses Denver’s remains aside with a chuff.

392’s mouth moves. He’s saying something—I can’t make out the words, but he only makes it about halfway across the clearing because Duke has arrived.

And Duke is the best—always has been.

Duke roars—a bullhorn scree that rattles the trees and then cliffdrops silent.

392 braces, but only just, and even then it’s like watching someone brace against a freighter. Duke rams him like a plow, mashing him into the snow, legs stabbing, hammering him into the ground.

I stagger back to my feet, and for the third time Carlisle’s in my face coming through in a signal now bright as day.

“Paulson. Report.”

“Not now,” I say, but when I try to close him out, he only drifts up into the top right-hand corner of my optic.

392 is sitting in the snow, Duke towering over him, one leg raised, poised like a cocked javelin, a scorpion stinger.

“You’re coming back with us,” I manage, and the effort of speech is like dragging a dagger through my windpipe. The cold shreds every word.

He rolls onto his back, his body battered, his chest expanding and deflating silently. He keeps one eye on me.

“Well done,” the Warden says, her voice placid.

They’re watching my feed. They have my eyes.

A rumble above us. Snow blows, rippling around my cryocloak.

I look up. A Crab—the center’s lone transport—hovers right above us. Duke just stands there, the flakes pinging off him like bullets.

The Crab lowers into the clearing, water running off the stabilizers. A creak as the loading bay yawns open and the repulsors power down to twin blue jets.

Carlisle’s framed in the opening, the “C” on his Chamberlain uniform polished to a sheen.

He struts down the ramp. “I’ll take it from here,” he says, peering down at 392, and then nods to Duke, who wraps the prisoner at the feet and hauls him to the Crab’s cargo hold. I can see a medpod sitting inside like a white coffin.

“Wait,” I say, and trigger my override, ordering a hold on Duke. He stops at the bay door.

Carlisle takes another two steps before he realizes Duke’s halted. He turns, and he knows it’s me because I see his jaw set like a pneumatic limb.

Then the Warden appears before me—a little ghost among the trees.

“Carlisle,” she says. “Let me handle this.”

“Duke stays with me,” I say.

From kilometers away, she unplugs my optic.

I’m blind.

* * *

Duke was the first, and the only reason I took the job at Chamberlain. As promised, his file dropped on my desk a day after the machinery arrived in a wood plank box with HOUND stenciled on the outside in military black. A bomb squad bot. A three-legged dog.

The file was everything—the history, just like countless others I’d read at Chamberlain. Ex-military. Razor Taser cut him in half during an ambush on Junger. The Massacre. Nearly nothing left. There was no medpod—and I remember averting my gaze at those realclips, the smell of cauterized, charred flesh coming off the image like smoke.

And what was left after they harvested?

His brain. Sealed in lifewrap and shipped back to the barracks where they repurposed with spare parts and an adapter. A kid from Southie, a living scarecrow.

My son. Now a Hound.

So of course I took the job at Chamberlain. Those dark days and long nights with only a bottle of brandy and the detonator for comfort… and then hope. I could see my boy again. Maybe not in the way I had hoped, but this was a gift. An opportunity.

Denver was next—the gunner from Zinc who bathed in napalm torching a nest of Ozarks, and Dolly after that. A Squad Chief near the Baltic, obliterated by friendly fire when her own troops panicked in a smokefield.

We spent those nights in the shed, the four of us, talking through the maindrive once I hooked them up, my optic running translations.

Their memories had been wiped. Call signs instead of names, rage instead of families. Unattached, unfeeling… but still human, their death experiences intact… and one of them was my son.

What came through were singular sights and sounds. Images which didn’t make sense through the computer. Duke told me about when he died, how he felt the warmth go first.

I would stare at the machine on the ground in front of me, blowing on my hands, flurries slithering under the doorframe while lines of chat filtered across the screen… and for a while I forgot about the detonator I had kept so close for so long.

The Warden approved. When I had the three of them up online, she came by, asking to take a look.

“This is what Chamberlain is,” she said, smiling inside the shed, the three of them wired into their charging stations. “A chance for change. Opportunity.”

I nodded, a frozen tear notching my cheek.

“Maybe you can lose the grief in your pocket,” she added, and smiled at my look of surprise.

* * *

It’s as if my eyes have been removed, the darkness is so complete. I can feel the cold whirling, hear Carlisle striding up into the loading bay. The clang of Duke’s legs behind him.

“Take me offline,” the Warden says, and I hear the little static click as the recording disconnects.

“The bombs,” I say, trying to understand, craving resolution.

“We triggered Dolly’s self-destruct. She asked for it before you left. We had to wait until you were off-grounds so it was out-of-network. Untraceable. Carlisle triggered the second explosion from the Crab. We needed a diversion to keep your boy away.”

I’m stunned, unable to speak.

“They asked for self-destruct,” she says, almost defensively. “You saw how easily Denver gave up.”

In my mind, I see 392 ripping Denver’s photoreceptor free, a squid of wires attached to a bloody mass.

Inside the Crab, I can hear the medpod slide open, Carlisle grunting as he lifts the prisoner’s body inside.

“I want you to know the program was real, Paulson,” The Warden says. Chagrin in her voice. “The Administrator’s officers gave me orders this morning to discontinue. They decided it wasn’t worth the effort, giving unwilling subjects a second chance. Then she drops the bomb on me. “But they want Duke repurposed. Shipped back out to the front lines. He’s too good to waste.”

I can’t move. Can’t speak. Did I do this? Alone in the shed with lines of code blinking across the screen… how many times did they ask to be set free? And I ignored them. Consumed in my own grief. Even my own son, trapped behind my manual override and denial. Fear of loss outweighed my love for him.

“Maybe it’s a good thing you kept the grief in your pocket,” she says.

I think of Duke, trapped inside the carapace up there, a hound with no heart, and Carlisle, and then I realize what the Warden’s just said.

In your pocket.

My detonator.

“Carlisle!” I shout, thumbing the switch inside my cryocloak.

A chuckle, but I hear his boots on the bay door, tromping out from behind the medpod.

“I never—” he begins, and that’s all I need to know where he’s standing.

“I love you, son!” I call.

And then I throw the detonator as hard as I can in their direction.

The explosion blooms like a dying sun, collapsing in on itself and then slinging everything outward. Heat bakes my face, a welcome warmth amidst the cold until a stray shard of metal flies free and punctures my stomach like a pike. The air whooshes out of my lungs. My knees hit the snow, ears ringing.

And then a terrible thought enters my brain, which will be sealed in lifewrap and repurposed in some barracks with spare parts and an adapter.

Where will I wake up?

I wonder, and wait for the warmth to go first.

JT Gill's work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion Science Fiction, and The Molotov Cocktail, where he won the 2015 Flash Fool Contest.

“Hounds” is original to Bullet Points.

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