Imagine a world where humans live, but giant alien robots rule. A world where you find a mysterious map. A map that leads you to an ancient weapon. A weapon that might be the only thing that can destroy the alien overlords and restore freedom to humanity. Would you use the weapon to save the world?
That beautiful blend of wish fulfillment and hero’s journey is the setup for Gundog, the new novel by Gary Whitta. Whitta is best known for writing major Hollywood screenplays like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Book of Eli, and After Earth. But, in recent years, he’s taken some of his biggest, best, most original ideas and filtered them through other mediums. Mostly because he knows big, original ideas don’t really fly as movies anymore.
Gundog is the latest one of those. It first entered the world via Whitta’s Twitch, then a podcast, and now for the old folks, it’s an actual book out on September 12. To celebrate, Whitta has exclusively provided io9 with the entire first chapter so you can check it out and see if you are interested in reading about the hero who might have a chance to save humanity in a mysterious, lost prototype called a Gundog.
Here’s Chapter One of Gundog, by Gary Whitta, which is available here.
The morning alarm sounded before sunup, as it did every day without fail. That was one thing you could say about the Mek: they were reliable, like clockwork—the most advanced clockwork anyone had ever seen. Their machine composition was so intricate that the military scientists charged with figuring it out during the ten-year war had barely begun to scratch the surface of what made them tick before it was too late. And now those precious secrets, obtained at such great cost and once thought the only hope of turning the tide, were lost forever. Obliterated by the Mek in the days after the war, along with the rest of human history and learning.
The alarm was a shrill, modulated tone, designed by the Mek to cause the greatest possible discomfort to the human ear. They had studied human anatomy and neurology well, both during the war and after, to maximize their every advantage over their enemy, and those efforts paid off in every detail, including this one. The alarm was essentially a sonic weapon that immediately brought on piercing headaches and nausea and didn’t cease until everyone in every barracks hut was out of bed and dressed and lined up outside for the morning head count. From the alarm’s first sounding to the time it was shut off was usually less than a minute. Few could tolerate it any longer than that. So there was no dawdling, even on the part of those too sick or infirm to be out of bed at such an hour. Others would haul them to their feet, dress them, and carry them outside if they had to. Anything to stop that sickening sound.
The alarm roused everyone except Dakota, who was already awake. She woke early every morning and dressed ahead of the alarm, then lay on her bunk, her eyes adapting to the dark, staring at the slats on the ceiling above. She had memorized every splinter and gnarl in the wood by now. What else was there to do? She wished she could sleep through the night, but some perpetual, indefinable itch at the back of her mind would inevitably wake her in the pre-dawn hours and keep her awake while she listened to the snoring of the others, or sometimes the cawing of a distant bird outside.
And now the alarm drove a metal spike through her skull and twisted her stomach into an agonizing knot, and she was immediately on her feet and moving quickly across the barracks to her brother Sam’s bunk. He was sitting up, groggy from waking and wincing in pain from the excruciating sound. Most others in the barracks were by now already out of bed and hurriedly dressing, but Sam was slower than most. Weaker.
“Sam, come on. Let’s go.” Dakota put her arm around him and lifted him out of bed. He swayed unsteadily on his feet as she helped him dress; Sam was missing his right arm below the elbow and it wasn’t easy for him to do it alone. Anyone who held up the head count and the cessation of the alarm would be in for a hard time at the hands of their barracks mates for the rest of the day, so Dakota always made sure that never happened. He was a few years older than her, and for years he’d protected her, kept her alive, running and hiding together before the Mek finally captured them and brought them here. Now, together in this township, she did the same for him. She was all he had.
Some fared better than others in captivity. The strong ones survived, and the weak ones, who were quickly identified by the Mek as a waste of rations, were “recycled”—that’s what they called it—for fuel. Sam was somewhere in between. He had once been so strong—a tower of strength and resilience that Dakota had come to admire and had tried to emulate. For as long as she could remember, she had looked up to him. But these past few years in the Mek township… they had taken something essential out of him. Hollowed him out.
Humans were not built to be prisoners, Dak, he had told her over and over, when they were still living in abandoned farmhouses and sewers and half-destroyed apartment blocks, constantly moving from place to place, trying to stay hidden. If it comes to it, I’ll take care of us both. Better to die free than live in a cage. Back then, he always carried a pistol with two rounds in it that he’d saved for just that purpose. But when that time finally came, when the Mek drones surrounded them in an open field with no hope of escape, he couldn’t bring “himself to put a bullet in his little sister. Instead he just fell to his knees and sobbed. And they were both taken and brought here.
In the years that followed, Sam became a living monument to what he had always told her. Humans were not built to be prisoners. Dakota’s heart broke for him as she watched, each day reducing him to a little less than he was the day before. He had lost so much weight that Dakota scarcely recognized him as the strong, fit man he once was. His uniform coveralls hung baggy and shapeless on his skeletal frame. His eyes had grown sunken, his skin pallid. At night, she would often sit by the side of his bed and watch him sleep, and at times he looked to her like a dead man ready for burial.
When Sam lost his right arm a year ago, in an accident with a steel press while working in one of the township factories, that might well have been the end. But Dakota, who was fortunate to have been working just outside at the time and heard the cries, rushed in and saved him. Tied off the wound and cauterized it using the factory tools at hand, then carried him back to the barracks to care for him. She worried he was already as good as dead—the Mek considered a one-armed worker an inefficient expenditure of rations, and normally they would have recycled him the same day—but Dakota pleaded with the Mek supervisor to spare him, offering to split her rations with him until he was well enough to be productive again. Coming from anyone else, such a plea would have fallen on deaf ears, but Dakota had proven her worth to the township as an engineer and problem-solver many times over, and so—in a rare and ultimately pragmatic show of mercy—they allowed her brother to live.
Sam never again returned to full work. In the Mek’s eyes, he was a cripple, capable of only menial chores and unworthy of a full ration of food. So to keep him alive, Dakota continued to split her rations with him—to this day.
But the toll that these past years as a slave laborer had taken on his body wasn’t the worst of it. It was what it had done to his spirit that crushed Dakota the most. All the fight had gone out of him. His quick-minded improvisation, which had saved them from Mek detection time and again during their years as fugitives, and the gleam in his eye as they sat by night around makeshift fires and he told her stories of humanity’s valiant last stand against the Mek… all that was gone. Only this emaciated shell remained.
Twice she had caught him close to ending his own life, once with a sharpened piece of metal he’d snuck from the factory, and later with a bottle of some dire Mek chemical stolen from a maintenance shed. Both times she managed to talk him down, persuade him to keep living, if not for himself then for her, because he was all she had in this whole miserable world, and if he left her, who knew how long she would last before following him. But she knew that despite his promises, the greatest threat to his life was not a Mek or another accident, but his own deliberate hand. So she continued to keep a close eye on him. Often, while he was supposed to be working the gardening plot or ferrying supplies, she’d catch him just staring at the horizon, or at nothing, and she’d know what he was thinking. She’d make her way over as quickly as she could—before a Mek watcher could get to him first, to give him a low-voltage jolt to spur him back to work—and give him a smile or a touch of her hand, some reminder that he hadn’t yet lost everything.
Now she finished helping him dress, and together they joined the line of workers quickly filing out of the barracks into the floodlit night. Dakota hadn’t seen the true dark of night, the stars in the sky, for years, blotted out as they were by the Mek light towers that blazed from dusk to dawn, keeping the entire township awash in stark fluorescent light that made everything in the world look artificial, antiseptic, alien. There were shutters on the barracks doors to keep the light out so workers could sleep, but out here in the open, it barely seemed like night at all, at least not the kind Dakota remembered. Still, it would be sunup soon, and then the lights would shut down and stop humming, and there the blue sky of day would be, the sun and the clouds.
Not even the Mek could take that away.
She stood still beside her brother, waiting as the Mek drone moved from one end of the line to the other, scanning each face, making sure everyone who checked into the barracks hut the night before was still present and accounted for. Only when every drone surveying every hut was satisfied did the morning alarm fall silent. Everyone exhaled in relief, their headaches and stomach pains abating, then at the sound of another alarm, this one a short but unpleasant electronic squawk, they made their way to the canteen huts for their breakfast ration, the Mek drones registering and recording their every move.
* * *
By the time breakfast was over and everyone was reporting to their work assignments, the sun had just started coming up, breathing light and life into the day. There was a cool breeze, and Dakota took a moment to stop and close her eyes and feel it waft over her, the briefest sense-memory of freedom. Then she heard the telltale clik-clik-clik of a Mek drone approaching and got moving again before it could jolt her.
Most everyone in the township worked to serve the Mek. They toiled in factories and foundries and on assembly lines, turning the metal ore and other raw elements that arrived by automated convoy from other townships into the refined materials and components the Mek used to build more of their cities, build more of themselves. But Dakota was different. She worked to sustain the township itself. Her specialty trade was everything. She fixed the plumbing when the pipes froze in winter or the toilets backed up; she patched fried electrical panels to keep the hut lights on; she decontaminated the water supply when it became undrinkable, as it so often did from the Mek’s toxic exhaust chemicals leaching into the groundwater; she kept the barracks huts’ dilapidated heating and ventilation systems running; she repaired broken windows and leaking roofs… basically everything that needed to be done to keep the Mek’s slave labor force from freezing to death or dying from poisoning or dehydration.
Still, many did die. There was no township doctor, no one old enough to have that kind of training or experience, and people frequently succumbed to illnesses and injuries that would have been routinely treatable before the war. The Mek could easily have provided medical facilities based on their vast knowledge of human physiology, but somewhere along the way one of their impenetrable algorithms had calculated that it was more efficient to tolerate the mortality rate than to expend resources to curb it. There was, after all, a never-ending supply of people to replace those who were lost. New workers arrived in the township via Mek prison vehicles on a regular basis.
Dakota was an exception in that regard. Though no human was truly valuable, she was considered less expendable by the Mek than most, as she had come to know every quirk and foible of the township’s run-down utilities, better even than the Mek themselves, and if she were to die, many more might follow before she could be replaced. More than the algorithm deemed acceptable.
As she went about her day, she was always careful to not let Sam out of her sight for too long. He’d recently been moved to an outside gardening detail, tilling crops that helped supplement the worker food supply, so she too tried to stay outside as much as possible, making busywork for herself if necessary. The Mek watchers would jolt her if they thought she was procrastinating, but today was easy. A barracks hut roof had sprung a bad leak, letting the rains in. Dakota might have needed only the work of a morning to patch the leak, but she had convinced a Mek supervisor that it would be more efficient to re-shingle the whole roof, further convincing the Mek that it would take her at least two weeks—twice her “actual estimate. She wanted to be up there as long as possible, not only because it gave her a good view of Sam and his garden plot, but also because she liked it up there. Being up off the ground, closer to the sky above, felt to her like a sort of freedom, even though the roof of the hut wasn’t even as tall as the township’s perimeter fence, which could be seen in the distance, towering over everything, an ever-present reminder that even the briefest feeling of freedom was an illusion.
“Need a hand?”
Startled, Dakota almost hit her thumb with her hammer. She turned to see Runyon standing on the ladder she’d used to climb up here, peering over the edge of the roof at her. He was one of the youngest workers in the township, eighteen or nineteen she guessed, although she’d never really given it—or him—very much thought.
“Thanks, I’m good,” she said, turning back to the shingle she was working on. After hammering a few more times, she got the feeling she was still being watched and turned again to see Runyon still there on the ladder, looking at her. She glared at him, and this time he seemed embarrassed and looked away.
“Do you need something?” she asked curtly.
“Finished with my detail early, thought I might help.” There was a quaver in his voice, like he was nervous, though Dakota couldn’t imagine why. All she knew was, the last thing she wanted was someone to help her make this work go faster.
She turned back to her work again. “Go ask a supervisor. I’m sure they’ll find something for you to do. Or just wait there—they’ll find you.” And true enough, she heard a Mek observer approaching at roof height, closing on Runyon. Its sensors had detected him out of place and inactive, and even now, Dakota had no doubt it was charging its electrified prod to jolt him.
She was surprised by what Runyon did next. He should have raced back down the ladder, but instead, he stayed a moment longer even as the drone drew closer.
He spoke quickly. “There’s story time at the rec hut tonight, right after dinner ration. You should come. I’ll be there. Will you come?”
Before Dakota could answer, the drone moved within just a few feet of Runyon, a moment from jolting him, and he slid down the ladder and raced back to his assigned area. She shook her head, took another roof nail from the box, and went back to work as the drone turned and moved away.
What happens next? Find out in Gundog, which comes out September 12.
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