Hell Hath No Fury

Ivana, bioengineered Wardog, contract soldier, and currently a mess of sweat-matted fur, desperate for a little relief from Algeria's blazing heat, leaned forward against the bar at Transatlantic Defense Corporation's company canteen, nursing a cold Heineken. She was of dingo gene stock-blue eyes, stocky muzzle, her coat sandy-colored and flecked with red. Her body was strong and fit, sculpted by years of toil and sweat, killing on the front lines of other people's wars.

Geared out in Khaki cargo shorts and shirt, bulletproof vest, knee guards and combat boots, Ivana carried a company standard issue SG-550 assault rifle slung across her back. She squinted, ears pinned back and chin tilted up, into the small fan oscillating above the bar. It was precious little comfort after a five hour patrol shift across shadeless scrubland.

"Jebem ovu pustinju," she cursed in Serbian.

Her tail drooped limply behind her, mirroring her sour mood. She flicked it occasionally to keep the flies at bay. In a thigh holster, she carried a ten inch bowie knife, which she always made sure was plainly visible to every dog in her outfit. To ward off unwanted overtures. Through her peripheral vision, she was aware that her ass was the center of attention for almost every male in the room. The majority attempted to be stealthy about it, but one in particular made no effort at all at pretense.

He was a Wardog of wolf gene stock, muscular and toned with cutoff sleeves that exposed his huge shoulders. With cocksure gall, the wolf appraised every inch of her lean body, like a butcher browsing the stalls at a meat market. Finally, he rose slowly from his table and came up alongside her at the bar. He leaned on his elbow, beer in hand, smiling at her and taking up what she was sure, he thought to be an alluring pose.

"Bonjour," he said.

Ivana looked at him sidelong. "Zdravo," she said after a pause.

By his accent, she guessed he was a naturalized Malian or Nigerien. He'd probably been a warlord's personal shock trooper or a remnant of the desperate French wars of colonial reconquest.

He grinned. "I don't think we have met. My name is Charles Philippe. And yours?"

"Ivana." She took a sip of her beer and tried to focus on the fan.

"You are far too attractive a woman to be spending your time at the bar alone, Ivana. I hope you don't mind if I join you."

She turned halfway towards him. "Whatever you want from me, Charles Philippe, I can tell you it is not on offer. Do you see me? I am sweaty, I am bitchy, and already have passionate, committed relationship with Mr. Heineken and this fan. Da?"

He peered down the inside of her vest and his gaze lingered on her compressed cleavage before traveling back up to meet her eyes. He grinned again. "If you will allow me a chance to change your mind, I'm sure I can help improve your mood. Allow me to buy your next drink, then perhaps we can go find a place a little more private to enjoy them together."

She turned back to face the fan. "I will pass. Hvala vam."

He leaned closer to her. "Ah, but I think you want what I have to offer. Come, I promise I'll make it fun for you." He reached around and firmly groped a handful of her rear.

Her body stiffened, her hackles bristling. She turned on him, rising to her full height-taller than him. As he let go of her and took a tentative step back, she closed the distance between them, grabbed a handful of his collar and jerked her knife free from its holster, pushing the blade close under his chin.

"Pardon! Pardon!" he yelped. "Hey-relax now, alright?"

Her lips pulled back from her teeth in a snarling growl. "Tell me...you think I come to this god-forsaken desert hell pit to be your personal mail-order Slavic bride? What? You think you some big time canine Casanova, boy? If you were looking for the local comfort, then I suggest you to try the brothels down the road, because I don't take shit from dickheads. You understand me, boy?"

"Go easy on him, Ivana," one of the males at the table behind her said, chuckling. "He's new."

Letting go of Charles Philippe's collar, she took her knife away from his throat and pointed it at the male who spoke to her. "I don't go easy, Jacques. No easy out here. If you want easy, you go home."

Jacques shrugged. "Heh. True enough."

Ivana ground her teeth. These males. Did they truly believe she spent all her days waiting around like an eager puppy for the chance to fall into bed with any one of them at a moment's notice?

Charles Philippe rubbed his throat and growled. "What? You some kind of damn lesbo?"

"Watch your mouth, boy," she snapped back. "I gut pigs for less."

The wolf opened his mouth as if to speak, then quickly shut it.

She glared at him. "Oh? You still want to talk, pig?" She swirled her blade in his direction. "Try it. Open mouth one more time and see what happens."

"You're fresh out of luck with that one, Charles," Jacques piped. "I hear she prefers bigger meat."

Charles Philippe pinned his ears back, shouldered his rifle and stormed out of the room with a snarl while the rest of the males erupted into laughter.

Ivana sheathed her knife and felt a dull tingling in her hands, accompanied by an overpowering need to smoke a cigarette. "I'm going out for drag, boys," she said. She gave the males at the table a sidelong look of contempt. "And don't try to follow me. Razumeš?"

Jacques put up his hands and grinned. "Yes, madame."

The others at the table chuckled, some leering after at her as she left.

Ivana walked out of the sweltering canteen and into the harsh afternoon sun. She had to get far away from there and find a spot to smoke in peace. She had in mind one spot in particular. She trudged across the dusty yard of the company-owned Ain Adra oil refinery and past the towering crude petroleum holding tanks on her way to the southwestern edge of the refinery complex. Masses of piping stretched between the tanks and crossed the yard above her head, carried on pylons toward the clustered distillation towers reaching like skyscrapers towards the clouds.

Seven years. Seven years she had served with distinction in the Serbian army both before the Big Crash and during the horrific global wars that followed. One-point-three billion dead and she had survived it through grit, blood, and force of will. She was considered the equal of her human handlers in combat and had even received a medal of valor from president Marcovic for her service. An extremely rare honor for a Wardog. But that was a long time ago. Serbia was no longer a nation after being absorbed into the Russian Federation, only a few years before that empire collapsed into chaos and ruin itself. Her old identity as a professional soldier fighting for flag and country seemed quaint now. Who still defines the world by national borders anyway? What few of those still exist.

Now as a contract employee of global war-corp Transatlantic Defense, in an all-Wardog outfit, to most of these males she counted for little more than a walking piece of tail with breasts. Nevermind she could out-shoot half of them. Pigs.

Ivana's path across the sprawling complex took her through the barracks grounds and main parking lot. She passed the rows of sedans and small SUVs belonging to the locally-hired refinery workers and past two armored HMMMVs mounted with .50 caliber machine guns. A dog relaxed behind one of the guns, smoking and studying the sky while the driver leaned against his door with his arms crossed over his chest. He freed a hand to wave at Ivana, but she ignored him.

The refinery and surrounding grounds were bounded almost in their entirety by a six foot deep ditch, crossable by bridge in only four places. The fortified main entrance facing south, two crossings on the east side, and one facing west. A chain link fence bordered the ditch, crowned by razor wire. With the world's oil reserves severely depleted and the expertise to refine it rapidly becoming esoteric knowledge, Transatlantic was sitting on top of nothing less than a gold mine. A strategic and extremely vital resource. A target.

At the far, south end of the yard, an unarmed HMMMV pulled in through the main entrance and rolled across the yard, past concrete fortifications and up to the parking lot. Ivana halted to avoid walking into the plume of dust kicked up by the vehicle's wheels. She growled in annoyance.

Pulling up alongside her, the HMMMV stopped and the door swung open. A male German Shepherd Dog climbed out and turned to help a young female out of the vehicle. She practically fell into his arms as she stepped out and burst into giggles.

The male grinned. "Oh you are a lively one, aren't you?"

"Aussi animé qu'ils viennent," she cooed.

They both broke into giggles.

Ivana rolled her eyes.

The GSD turned to her and gave a big wave. "Hey, Ivana! Care to join us for a threesome?" He pointed with his thumb towards the barracks. "There's plenty of room on the bed."

His female gasped and touched the tips of her fingers to her mouth, then erupted into giggles again.

Ivana narrowed her eyes at him. The GSD was Bartholomew, an American who had survived the fall of the fortress city of New York during the combined Chinese and Russian invasion years ago. He was lucky to get out before the bombs turned the entire U.S. east coast into a nuclear wasteland. It looked like he'd managed to seduce one of the service dogs from the hospital in the town of Manasa, thirteen kilometers to the south of the refinery. Ivana could smell the other female's heat and Bart's desire as he leered at the girl.

Raising a middle finger high in Bart's face, she kept walking past him.

After a pause, Bart yelled after her. "Okay, I'll put you down for a maybe!"

Ivana allowed herself a begrudged smile. The truth was, she didn't mind Bart that much. He knew what her answer to his question was before he asked it, and he was for the most part, a harmless oaf. Leave it to an American to act like a total pig, yet remain irritatingly charming at the same time.

Turning west and nearing the edge of the yard, Ivana made her way around the reinforced concrete barriers and earth-filled bastions set atop a system of trenches that guarded the approaches to the inner yard and main refinery buildings. The fortifications spanned most of the yard's perimeter, creating a formidable obstacle for any enemy advancing on foot and a bulwark against fragmenting artillery rounds. She stopped in front of a large propane tank about ten meters inside the chain link fence and leaned against it. Beyond the fence lay the roadway connecting to Manasa and to Algiers, one hundred and sixty-three kilometers to the north.

From here, she had a good view of the roadway and her favorite tree. It was an old argan, its gnarled trunk sprouting thorny branches that rose to form a wide, spreading crown. Sometimes there were goats in it. Right now there was just one-a large buck sporting an impressive set of twisting horns. It stared at her and she looked back as she stuck a cigarette between her lips and flicked her lighter underneath it until the end glowed bright red. The goat's beard bobbed as it's jaw moved constantly in a circular chewing motion, the bell hanging from its neck softly chiming upon the wind. Ivana took a long drag on her cigarette and let it out slowly into the wind.

Here, peace and quiet at last and no male lust to test the limits of her self-restraint. Turning around slightly, Ivana looked to make sure her commanders weren't watching from the tall administration building overlooking the yard, then moved further behind the propane tank.
Her outfit's two commanding officers were human. Billingslea and Barnum, long-time company men with many years of experience leading armed units, including Wardogs. Of course, a unit of Wardogs couldn't possibly be allowed to command themselves. It would mean chaos and disorder in the ranks without a proper alpha to lead the pack. So the line goes. An unfair assessment certainly, then again, that was none of her concern. Frankly, she was out here to do a job-as godforsaken as it was-and neither the time nor inclination to dwell on class politics. She understood her place in the grand scheme of things as far as humans were concerned. To them, a Wardog with ideas about her station was more more dangerous than a Wardog with a gun.

She watched a passing three-dog patrol through the chain links, their shapes distorted by the shimmering heat rising from the earth. A hot wind came out of the east and ruffled her fur. She squinted in the bright sun, breathing smoke out through her nostrils and tolerating the heat as best as she could.

Distant movement beyond the chain link fence caught her attention. Her ears pricked forward as she watch several plumes of dust traveling across the scrubland dotted with ridges on the far side of the roadway. It looked like multiple vehicles approaching from several directions. A creeping feeling of suspicion pricked at her senses. Her war-honed instincts told her this was trouble brewing. She looked at her argan tree. The buck was gone.

She lifted her SG-550 and peered through the 4x magnification ACOG scope. They were infantry combat vehicles-six or seven of them followed by support vehicles and coming in fast. Grasping the radio receiver on her shoulder, she spoke into it. "Gunther, this is Ivana. Are you seeing what I'm seeing? Mechanized forces approaching from the south, southeast, and west. Confirm?"

"I see them," answered a deep, soft-spoken voice in a heavy German accent. The aging wolfhound was posted in the southeast guard tower overlooking the main entrance. "I count seven contacts. I have passed it on to B and B. Standing by for further instructions."

Ivana glanced back at the administration building. What? Did they have their heads up their asses? All sections should be on the highest alert already.

"Western guard tower reporting," a voice said. "Mechanized contacts confirmed this side. Standing by for further instructions."

"The natives are running." Ivana said. She watched a Berber goatherd frantically pushing his flock ahead of him as he followed a local footpath into a ravine and out of sight.

"Ah hell." the voice from the western tower said.

A siren went up from inside the refinery yard. In the midst of it, a voice sounded through a loudspeaker, "Attention all sections-all dogs to your battle positions. This is not a drill. Repeat-all dogs to your battle positions. This not a drill."

A rocket fired from the ground streaked over the fence and slammed into the southeast tower. Ivana watched it go up in flames and felt a sinking feeling in her heart. Gunther had been her friend. Of all the males in the outfit, he was the only one who had always been civil to her. He spent most of his free time alone, smoking in quiet contemplation while the others drank and whored after shifts. The few times they had spent in each other's company passed through her mind. She recalled laughing and smoking by a glowing mosquito coil in the heat of the night while he regaled her with war stories and cracked jokes drenched in good-natured vulgarity.

Answering machine gun fire erupted from the fortified gatehouse. Ivana heard a faint sizzling sound high over her head, a noise like wind through reeds that she recognized immediately. Mortars. Her adrenaline spiking, she bolted from the propane tank and fled for cover. An explosion five or six meters to her left forced her to dive onto her belly wrap her arms around her head. Bits of earth and debris rained all around her, pattering on the ground as they landed. She was back on her feet in seconds and sprinting for the nearest wall of bastions.

She gripped her radio receiver as she leaped over a dirt embankment. "I'm taking mortars in the southern sector!" She heard more rounds exploding in front and behind her. Diving behind the bastions, she clutched her rifle close to her chest as she scrambled to a crouching position with her back pressed against them. She swivelled her ears back to listen. By the direction the sounds were coming from and the time the rounds spent in the air, the mortar fire had to be coming from the southwestern ridges. A forward detachment of troops must have approached on foot ahead of the ICVs. How they managed to take their positions undetected by surveillance or patrols, she wasn't certain. At any rate, their level of organization ruled out local dissident militia groups. This was something much more serious.

She stood and steadied her rifle on top of a bastion. ICVs had reached the perimeter of the refinery grounds and human soldiers wearing desert camouflage and full, professional military gear poured out of them less than sixty meters from her position.

She recognized the insignia emblazoned on the ICVs. Northwest Alliance. A loose confederation of former western European states, drawing much of their reach and power from the still formidable remnants of the British Royal Navy. Transatlantic has been selling weapon systems and equipment to the alliance for years (their enemies, too of course), but apparently their leadership had decided to cut out the middleman and take company resources for themselves.

Ivana took aim and opened up with several short bursts upon the men rushing to take up positions near the armored vehicles. She saw two men go down among a dusty spray of bullet impacts. The soldiers in the immediate area scattered for cover, some running behind the nearest ICV and others diving to the ground. Through her scope, Ivana tracked a man running for an ICV and fired two shots in quick succession. A pray of blood erupted from his neck and he tumbled in the dirt.

Ivana swung her rifle off the bastion and ducked behind it. She heard an ICV open up with its auto cannon and her position was engulfed in a mass of explosions, forcing her to flatten herself inside the trench. Her ears hugged her skull as the deafening blasts overwhelmed her senses.

When the rhythmic thumping of the autocannon ceased, she peered up to see half the bastions above her pulverized and nearly gone. Carrying her rifle in the crooks of her arms, she crawled on her knees and elbows, moving down the trench a few meters before rising to a crouch and rushing behind the nearest intact concrete barrier. She stood and brought her rifle up again. Combat engineers were laying steel bridges across the ditch at multiple points with the help of bridge-laying trucks. An armored bulldozer rattled across one, approaching the fence.

Ivana centered her scope on the driver's cabin and opened fire. Her bullets sparked and ricocheted off the steel screen protecting the windows as the bulldozer barreled forward. Its shovel plowed into the fence and it gave way, crushed under the dozer's tracks. It began to back up as soldiers converged on the three meter opening it left behind. The engineers cut the razor wire, making way for the soldiers behind them.

The thunder of .50 calibers rose over the din of cannons and small arms fire and two HMMMVs pulled up next to the fortifications, guns roaring. Almost immediately, one took a direct hit from a mortar and exploded into flames. It slowly ground to a halt is it's hull burned. The other one kept firing. Ivana crouched behind the barrier and ejected her spent magazine, jamming a new one inside and pulling the bolt back.

Barnum's voice crackled in her ear piece. "Ivana, I'm tracking you as the senior rifleman in your sector. Give me a sitrep down there."

"Situation all fucked up!" She nearly screamed into her receiver. "Where is the rest of my platoon? Where the hell is our air support?"

"Gunships are in the air. We had to call them in from Algiers because the flight in Manasa is grounded for maintenance. I've got second and third platoons converging on your sector. Just hang in there."

A mortar round whistled close and Ivana ducked. The round exploded several meters behind her and she was thrown forward. Sharp, searing pain erupted across her back and left shoulder. She knew she'd been hit by a fragmentation round. "Gadovi!" she cursed aloud as she struggled to her hands and knees. Bastards. Refusing to speculate on the seriousness of her wounds, she returned to the barrier, opening fire upon the soldiers crossing the bridges and dispersing among the first line of fortifications. Several soldiers knelt in place and fired back, spraying her position and forcing her down. Over the radio, someone was screaming for anti armor support on the western front.

Further down the defensive line, she spotted a four-dog fireteam piling in behind the fortifications there. It looked like a marksman, two riflemen, and a light machine gunner. They set up firing positions in seconds, gun barrels flashing and bringing their thunder to bear against the Alliance. A second fire team soon joined them. Bart came leaping over a mortar crater, sprinted and landed in the trench next to her. "Damn it, Ivana-I was almost there!" he said as he unfolded the bipod on his FN Minimi light machine gun.

Trying to ignore the stabs off pain across her back and shoulder, she pinned her ears back and growled at him. "Da, da. By all means, don't let Ivana stop you from finishing with your whore."

He just grinned at her stupidly.

"I always wonder if castration would make you better soldier," she said, turning back towards the enemy.

"I've always wondered if screwing would make you one."

"I will be sure to keep you guessing indefinitely, prijatelju moj."

"Same here. I'll keep my jewels, thanks."

Ivana set her scope just above the top of the barrier and looked through it. "Multiple hostiles advancing in open due south. Make them eat dirt, will you?"

Bart smirked. "Yes ma'am." Jerking to his feet, he swung his LMG onto the barrier, positioned the bipod and unleashed a torrent of full-auto fire downrange. The soldiers crossing the ten meter no man's land between the lines of fortification threw themselves flat to the ground and Ivana pushed her rifle onto the barrier, firing in controlled bursts at their heads. A spurt of gore just above the bank of earth where the soldiers sought meager cover, confirmed that her rounds had connected.

She felt a thud next to her and saw Adrian, a young South African painted dog, settling into position, Javelin missile system resting on his shoulder. Jonas, another South African joined him, carrying a replacement missile housed in its launch tube assembly. An ICV autocannon began to thump and further down the line from Ivana, the rounds engulfed the position the fireteam had taken just before Bart's arrival. She heard screaming yelps.

Adrian rose to his feet and focused the Javelin's targeting unit on the ICV. Ten seconds later, the missile fired, launching from the tube and shot several meters before igniting with a roar and rocketing skyward. Adrian immediately ducked behind the barrier and Ivana watched the missile reach its zenith, then plummet. The high-explosive anti-tank warhead found its target, striking the ICV's turret in a brilliant flash. The shockwave instantly suspended a cloud of dust above the ground as the ICV erupted from the inside out, throwing shrapnel and debris in all directions.

Jonas whooped and punched Adrian's shoulder, bringing a grin to the painted dog's mottled face. They both smiled at Ivana and she gave a brief, acknowledging wave. Apparently deciding that she was sufficiently impressed, the pair worked to remove the spent launch tube assembly from the targeting unit and load up a second one. Bart, kept up his suppressing fire downrange as Ivana continued to make precision shots and controlled bursts. She took down three more soldiers.

Rising again, Adrian trained his targeting unit on another ICV and his head erupted. His body slumped lifelessly against the barrier, half his face gone. Immediately after, Ivana heart a sharp, resounding snap carried on the air. She immediately ducked, pulling Bart down with her. A sniper. Damn it. At least five hundred meters out, she judged by the sound delay.

Jonas slumped in the trench as he stared at Adrian's body, his eyes wide with shock.

Bart swore loudly.

"Stay down, boys" Ivana said. I'll find him." She changed out her spent magazine, pulled the bolt back and slowly rose, peeking her scope above the barrier. She searched the scattered trees beyond the fence. That shot had been too close to be coming from the ridges. The concrete surface next to her cheek erupted, pelting her cheek and stinging like needles. She ducked again, pinning her ears back and swearing.

"Are you alright?" Bart said, reaching for her.

She shoved his hand away. "Fine! I am fine."

"Damn it. He almost took you out."

"I know that." Breathing out heavily, she pondered the situation. That second shot had come somewhere out of the southeast. One more shot from that sniper, and she was sure she could pinpoint his location. She looked for something to throw as a distraction, anything to turn an itchy trigger finger to her advantage.

She noticed machine gun fire coming from one of the inner defensive lines behind her. An ICV advancing through the refinery's main entrance opened up with a cannon barrage on that position. Jonas grabbed up the Javelin and began to stand.

"Jonas, no!" Ivana yelled, reaching for him.

He fired the Javelin without waiting for a lock and it streaked towards the ICV. An instant later, blood erupted from Adrian's throat and he began to gag. He collapsed backwards into the trench, grasping and clawing at his throat.

Ivana cursed, sprang to her feet and focused her scope on a group of trees to the southeast. She heard the crack of the sniper's last shot, adjusted her focus left, and saw the glint of a scope in a treetop. She immediately ducked just before another round whizzed over her head, followed by a snap. Five hundred...five hundred fifty meters. Taking him out at that distance was going to be incredibly difficult. Her rifle's effective range was rated just at four hundred meters and beyond that, bullet spread was going to be significant. She'd managed to put rounds on target with the 550 at four hundred sixty meters or so in the past, but that was on open terrain against standing or crouching targets. She had to get closer.

Turning left, she considered the fluid catalytic cracking unit, a large refinery structure about thirty meters forward of her position. This facility used for breaking down the molecular structure of heavy oil into lighter fluids was several stories high and shooting from one of its many platforms would give her a height advantage over the sniper and make it hard for soldiers to spot her from the ground.

"Bart, I need to get up in this guy's face," Ivana said. "I'm going to run for hydrocracker. Do you have smoke?"

He nodded, unclipping a cylindrical grenade from his belt. "I'll go with you."

"No. Stay here and hold this position. I will go on my own."
"If you want my smoke, I'm going with you. We're Wardogs, we run as a pack."

Ivana looked at him, grinding her teeth inside her mouth. Presumptuous prick. Was he seriously going to refuse to give her a smoke screen if she refused his help? She considered using one of the many creative ways to say "fuck you and everything yours" that existed in her language. Bringing him along would probably slow her down, but she had to admit his covering fire would be a useful asset.

"Fine," she said. "Follow close to me and don't drag ass." She indicated towards the hydrocracker. "Throw it."

Bart tossed the smoke grenade and it rolled across the ground before one end burst open with a crack. Thick white smoke billowed out from it. Caught in the wind, it spread rapidly outward until everything beyond was totally obscured.

"Go now," Ivana said.

She and Bart sprinted into the smoke. Ivana kept her path true, knowing exactly where she needed to go. They continued through the smoke unmolested until the hydrocracker loomed out of it, materializing like cliffs through a fog. Ivana and Bart passed into the shadow of the facility's towering holding tanks and processing units, interconnected by a jungle of pipes and scaled by ladders and catwalks. Ivana ran to the base of a skeletal, steel beam tower sandwiched between the two main processing units and began to scale the ascending series of stairs and landings housed inside. Bart followed after her. Twenty meters up, they hit a catwalk, crossed to the hulking regenerator unit and scaled another set of stairs and landings until they reached a final ladder, which would take them to the top of the regenerator. Ivana slung her rifle onto her back and climbed.

By now, her breath came in heaves, she was sweating profusely and wondered if she was suffering from blood loss. She could feel the sticky fluid matting her fur and soaking her shirt through. Ears flat, she gritted her teeth and pressed onwards. Reaching the top of the ladder, she stood and stumbled sideways as the wind hit her hard. She took to her hands and knees, crawled forward and rested against a thick pipe protruding from the top of the regenerator, extending over the edge and connecting to others far below.

Bart crouched close to her. She could smell the faint, sweet scent of cologne wafting from his fur and felt his breath close to her ear. The sweat of his woman still lingered on him.

She looked at him. "What are you doing?"

"You're hit bad," he said. "Let me look at your back."

"It is nothing," she growled. "Just shrapnel."

"But you're bleeding."

"I have no time for bleed."

Bart smiled. "Cute, but even Jesse Ventura would tell you that you can't stay alive with your precious bodily fluids running out all willy-nilly."

She rolled her eyes. "Fine, take your look then. Hurry up." She paused, then looked at him. "Jesse Ventura?"

"Forget it."

He set down his LMG and lifted her shirt. He whistled. "God. This looks bad. You're shredded." He examined her wounds, carefully pressing in spots with his thumbs, searching for blood flow. He followed the torn flesh across her left side towards her front, pressing and feeling.

She glared at him sidelong. "Start touching me like one of your whores, and I will kill you. Razumes?"

He nodded. "Duly noted, ma'am." He finished his examination and lowered her shirt. "You're lucky the shrapnel missed your spine. You got blood pooling in two of your shoulder wounds. We really need to get you to a proper medic."

She smiled dryly. "Fresh out of proper medics up here, Mr. Bart. No offence."

"Duly noted. Let's take out that sniper and get you down from here, eh?"

She attached a flash suppressor to her rifle's muzzle, then carefully made her way to the edge of the regenerator and lay flat on her stomach, propping her rifle on the low railing that skirted it. She switched the mode selector to semi-automatic. Bart lay next to her, attached his own flash suppressor and set up his bipod.

Ivana focused her scope on the tree where she knew the sniper lurked. She searched for a moment before she spotted the outline of his ghillie suit through the pine needles. "There you are, you son of bitch," she murmured. Using her scope's rangefinding dots, she calculated the distance to her target. She leaned close to Bart and pointed.

"That cluster of pines at three o'clock, four hundred and eighty meters out, second tree from left. Look there. Twenty meters up high. Can you see the bastard?"

Bart squinted. "I...yes, I can see the tip of his rifle through the leaves. That's a long shot."

"I know. Your gun has better effective range than mine. Give me suppressing shots while I line up for kill."

Bart squinted down his iron sights, checked the wind direction, paused, then opened fire. As the Minimi blazed, Ivana focused on the nested sniper through her scope. Shreds of leaves and tree bark flew around him. She rechecked her range, adjusted for wind direction, estimated bullet drop. Pulling the trigger repeatedly, she fired shots in quick succession. "Tack, tack, tack, tack, tack, tack, tack!" No hits.

She cursed under her breath and adjusted her aim. Focus, her instincts told her. Tighten the pattern. The sniper's scope glinted towards her. She opened fire. "Tack, tack, tack, tack, tack, tack"...a hit! Two hits! Spurts of blood erupted from the sniper's neck and chest and his body went limp.

Ivana heard the zip of a bullet past her ear, followed by a crack. Shit. He'd managed to get off a shot. Luckily her brains were still intact.

"For Gunther," she whispered. She reached over and grabbed Bart's shoulder. "Good! We can get off here. Let's go." She looked at him and the adrenaline rush of victory was replaced with a familiar, dull regret. Bart was dead, half his lower jaw missing and a gaping exit hole out the back of his head splattered red with gore.

The sniper's body slid out of the tree and plummeted to the ground. From below, Ivana heard faint, scattered howls and whoops of victory. Seems the men appreciated her handiwork. Ivana shoved Bart's body aside, slung her rifle onto her back and took up his weapon, lying prone behind it. She focused in on the attacking troops below and opened fire, spraying their positions as they advanced across the crumbling southern defenses. Her disruption seemed to halt the retreat of Wardogs along the right flank, who took up new positions and re-engaged the enemy.

Ivana kept steel flying downrange, gnashing her teeth as simmering rage made her ears burn. Her shots connected with a marksman's accuracy, downing men as soon as they exposed themselves. She hoped every one of them choked on their own blood. No contract outfit of hers had ever been forced to retreat or capitulate. Gunther and even Bart didn't have to go the way they did. These Alliance bastards needed to pay in as much blood as she could spill. In the back of her mind, she knew there was much more at stake now than a chance at payback.

If the Alliance took the refinery, the human workers and company men could expect capture and incarceration, maybe forced labor. But the dogs? Ivana and the others could look forward to being shot, strung up, bludgeoned, or tortured to death. Drowning, strangulation, disembowelment, ears and tails cut off...humans could be awfully creative when ridding the world of "mutts."

Ivana heard a buzzing in the sky and looked up as a small drone whizzed by. It was not one of Transatlantic's. She heard the sizzle of an incoming mortar. It impacted an instant later, hitting one of the cracking units behind her. A second mortar exploded somewhere on the ground below her. They were zeroing in fast. She had to move.

Dropping the Minimi, she retreated to the ladder and began climbing down from the regenerator. A mortar, preceded by scarcely a sound, impacted where she had just been and she hugged the ladder as burning debris and shards of twisted metal fell around her. She began moving again as soon as she had the chance. Upon reaching the last few rungs, she dropped with a thud to the catwalk below and sprinted across it, to the scaling tower. A mortar impact sent her lurching and she slammed into a railing, clutching at it to keep from tumbling over the side. Recovering her balance, she sprinted down the stairs and landings until she reached the ground. From there, she sprinted to a wall of bastions and dove into the trench behind them as bullets impacted at her heels. She crouched inside the trench, panting and trying to catch her breath. She found it was becoming increasingly difficult to breath. She felt dizzy. Nauseated.

The radio crackled in her earpiece and she heard Barnum's voice. "Ivana, fall back to the inner defensive lines, you're being overrun!"

She heard a plink, whirled and saw a grenade roll in behind her. Scooping it up in an instant, she tossed it towards the enemy and ducked down. As soon as it exploded, she pushed her rifle onto a bastion and gunned down two men advancing on her left less than five meters away. As they fell in the dirt, a soldier rounded the bastions on her right flank, coming nearly nose to muzzle with her. She pointed her rifle and squeezed the trigger. Click. Empty clip. The barrel of his L85 rifle was in her face. She grabbed it with both hands, shoving it upwards and to the side. It discharged, deafening her. The man cursed and tried to wrench it from her grasp. She shoved it with all of her might against his chest, snarling and baring her teeth as she drove him backwards.

"Fuck!" the man screeched in a thick, cockney accent. He stumbled, his knees buckled and he fell onto his back. She was on top of him in an instant, pushing his rifle against his collarbone and pinning him to the ground. Her hand went to her thigh holster. His reached it first and yanked her knife free. She closed both hands over his, stopping the blade just centimeters from her throat. He let go of his rifle, joining in the struggle with his other hand. The two of them rocked violently as they fought to wrench the knife from the one another, clawing and prying at each other's hands.

"Mongrel bitch!" the man shrieked.

Ivana doubled down, slowly turning the blade towards the soldier's stomach where his body armor was riding up. His struggles became frantic, but she continued to overpower him. She tilted the blade into position and threw all of her weight into it, shoving it downwards. It sank into his gut. He shrieked again and his grip loosened. Seizing the opportunity, she yanked the knife fully from his grasp and thrust it back into his belly, twisting it slowly and jerking it out. Rising to a kneeling position, she picked up his rifle, leveled it to his head and pulled the trigger. The shot penetrated the center of his forehead, leaving crimson hole.

She spit on the ground next to his body. "Send me postcard from hell. Sign it with big smooch for your mongrel bitch, da?"

As she hovered over his body, in the sky, she heard the thumping of helicopter blades. The long-promised gunships. She discarded the dead soldier's rifle, snatched up her own and scrambled back to the bastions, crouching close against them. Things were about to get super hot. The growl of a 25mm chain gun filled her ears. She changed out her magazine and raised her scope above the bastions. Rockets streaked over her head and slammed into the lead of two ICVs advancing into the refinery yard, sending it up in flames. She looked as an AH-1 Supercobra roared overhead, unloading rockets and veering off to the left. Three more approached the refinery from the south. Alliance soldiers were fleeing, retreating from the southern front with the remaining ICVs. She wondered how the dogs had fared on the western front. She hadn't heard any commotion from that side in some time.

From the ridges, a missile went up, streaking towards one of the gunships. Flares erupted from the back of the gunship in a sparkling shower and the missile exploded in the midst of them. A second gunship swooped in low, strafing the ridges with a barrage of rockets and chain gun fire. Ivana listened to the echoing rumbles wafting across the barren shrublands in the brutal heat of the day. It would be over soon, she thought. Another fantastically screwed up day in Algeria. Another day won by dogs. A-woo.

A new wave of dizziness overtook her and she put a hand to her forehead. Why did she feel so cold? She saw stars as her vision blurred, and she tried to clear her head. "Sta?" Her shrapnel wounds...too much blood loss.

She spoke into her radio receiver. "This is Ivana. Medic. I need a medic." She tried to stand, stumbled to the ground and blacked out.

Ivana sat topless in the dirt under the shade of an open triage shelter near the eastern perimeter, a needle in her forearm supplying her body with a blood transfusion from a hanging bag. She'd been given only a small towel to preserve her modesty, holding it against her chest as a local Algerian medic hovered over her, meticulously plucking shrapnel out of her back and left shoulder with white-gloved hands and a pair of tweezers. He plinked each bloody piece into a metal tray next to her as her worked through her wounds. She tolerated the pain without a word or a whimper, barely wincing as the tweezers dug deep into her perforated flesh.

Despite his steady hands, the medic looked and smelled nervous and Ivana suspected that he had never treated a Wardog before. He would occasionally glance around at the other dogs crowded under the shelter, looking at them as if he were surrounded by a pack of ravening jackals ready to pounce in a heartbeat. To say he looked like a fish out of water would be putting it lightly. She was sure his Islamic aversion to dogs played a part.

She watched other medics milling about the triage shelter, treating the wounded and laying out body bags for the twenty-three corpses gathered in a corner. No outfit she had been with had suffered the kind of casualties she was looking at right now. Then again, not many of the world's scattered military factions had the guts to attack a global war-corp like Transatlantic.

With the arrival of ambulances and damage control teams from Manasa, came hordes of village children, accompanied by a few stony-faced adults. The children crowded in front of the fence, looking in through the links, pointing at the Wardogs and chattering in Arabic and Berber. A group of teenagers stood among them and seemed especially focused on Ivana, grinning, pointing, and guffawing like idiots. She ignored them, knowing that more than anything, she intimidated them. She was an aberration to them, a being whose existence they couldn't comprehend. Beset by conflicting emotions and secret primal fears, they were responding in their emotional immaturity, the only way they knew how. "Ha ha. Look at the dog-person with tits."

She stuck a cigarette in her mouth as the medic continued to pluck out shrapnel. When she flicked her lighter underneath it, the medic reached for it. "Pardón madame, I would rather you did not-"

She whirled on him, pinning her ears back and growling through her teeth.

He withdrew his hand. "Alright! No problem. Just...be cautious where you exhale, will you?"

As the flame flickered underneath and the tip of her cigarette glowed red, Ivana pocketed her lighter, took a drag and let it out slowly. She was anxious to be done with this and get back to her post. What if the enemy were preparing a counterattack? As she stewed, the tramp of approaching boots caught her attention.

Billingslea and Barnum walked into the triage shelter, clad in khaki fatigues and body armor, Glock sidearms holstered at their waists. Dogs bowed their heads and moved their ears back in a show of deference as the two men passed them. Ivana followed suit when they approached and stopped in front of her.

The company men surveyed their charges with stern gazes. "At ease, Wardogs," Barnum commanded.

Ears perked back up and all eyes focused on him. At least those whose heads weren't swathed in bloody bandages or their eyes swollen too shut to see.

"Congratulations, everyone on your victory today," Barnum continued. "You all fought tooth and claw to defend your territory and we commend each and every one of you. You fought like true warriors. You fought like Wardogs. A-woo!"

"A-wooooo!" dogs echoed, raising fists into the air.

Billingslea looked directly at Ivana. "Ivana-serial number BC-87001-your actions today were instrumental in preventing the southern front from falling. You held your position under a relentless enemy attack, even as every position around you was overrun. You bought time for our gunships to arrive and press the advantage before the enemy was able to entrench itself and mount an effective defense. For that, we recognize your courage and honor your commitment to your duty."

"I think the men could learn a thing or two from you," Barnum said. He passed a sweeping gaze over the dogs. "Isn't that right, men?"

Scattered chuckles spread throughout the crowd. "Here, here," someone said.

Ivana fluttered her eyelashes at Barnum and wagged her tail. She knew the humans expected her to fawn over their praise.

He reached down and scratched her behind the ears. "That's a girl."

Her tail kept wagging but she could barely resist the temptation to bite his hand off. The patronizing bastard. She turned, grinning to the crowd and waved to them with her hand high in the air. "Hvala! Thanks to you all. Now which one of you son of bitches want to go find bigger towel for me?" She winked and wiggled the little section of cloth over her chest, drawing roars of laughter from the males.

"Please, will you hold still?" her medic blurted, his voice drowned in the hyena-like cackling of two dozen bleeding, sweating Wardogs.

They began to chant in unison. "Ivana! Ivana! Ivana! A-woooo!"

A frown crossed Billingslea's brow, which Ivana savored. Sure, that display didn't help her perception among the males, but B and B preferred their dogs silent unless spoken to and she delighted in these subtle acts of insubordination.

"Alright, alright, everyone," Barnum said, putting up his hands. "Settle down now." He glared at Ivana's medic. "Find something to make her decent, will you? Go." The medic nodded, set his tweezers down and left for one of the parked ambulances behind him.

Barnum faced the other dogs. "Now...while you may have achieved victory today, I want those able-bodied of you to stay vigilant. The Northwest Alliance is a desperate group and may try to renew their attack on this important facility. Your sacrifice to do your part for the company is appreciated at the highest levels. I want to remind you that you are among Transatlantic Defense's most valuable assets. Don't forget that. Cry havoc, dogs. A-woo!"

Voices shouted in answer. "A-wooooo! Cry havoc!"

B and B turned to leave. Dogs bowed once more as the two men passed by on their way out. As soon as Ivana was sure they couldn't see, she presented a middle finger to their backs. Two males sitting nearby looked at her and broke into grins. They flipped the men off in turn, cursing them in German. Everyone knew that behind all their pretty words, Wardogs were all but expendable to their human taskmasters.

The five-year contract that Ivana had signed with Transatlantic was the same one signed by thousands of nationless Wardogs before her, essentially amounting to indentured servitude. Her contract could even be bought and sold between corps at will. If she was insubordinate or unruly, she could be beaten, denied meals or be sacked and blacklisted from future recruitment pools. No other war-corp would consider hiring her and she'd never be able to pay back her sign-on fee.

Ivana's eyes wandered to the bodies of her former comrades, half of them in bags and ready to be disposed of. Billingslea and Barnum hadn't even bothered to acknowledge the dead or so much as look their way. As she watched the medics zip Bart's mangled body into a bag and cart it with others into the back of a weather-beaten ambulance, she found herself pondering the unsung life and death of a contract soldier. A contractor has no national flag to fight under, no grand narrative of freedom or love of country to frame her actions and give her sacrifice any higher meaning. There was only the job. The endless patrols, oil convoy escorts, the occasional goodwill initiative for the native populace, and remembering to duck when the natives turned restless.

Bart's death would recorded in company asset and personnel reports, then his transient life and dubious career summarily forgotten. No ceremony, no honors, no twenty-one gun salute. As for Ivana, what drove her to pursue this career of perilous, uncertain days and thankless hardship? She was a Wardog, a creature bred for warfare and born to kill, and she knew no other way to live. She accepted that she would be forever a pawn in the endless human struggle for power and domination over the scraps of a shattered Earth. Depressing maybe, but right now she didn't give a damn. All she could think about was that she could really use another ice cold beer.