A Boy and His Dog ... -
A Boy and His Dog, an Unfinished Love Story
...they evolved into perfect symbionts, developing a rapport that I wouldn’t have believed possible. Coming in from outside, one look at Haley would cause Michael’s face to melt and he would drop to the floor to embrace her before doing anything else. One look at him, and Haley would shadow his every move, lest he leave again without her.
* * *
We planted a tree in Haley’s favorite spot. I thought it should be a dogwood, but Michael wanted a fruit tree, which made a strange kind of sense. We selected a plum tree and I had a stone made for her just her name and a dog bone engraved in a seven in rock. I felt her spirit every time I walked by that tree. Visitors who’d known her always stopped to say hello when they passed it.
Every social scientist on Earth had studied Thodes, a remote, self-contained research colony housing a handful of scientists. Working in isolation, they’d been trying to prove that AIs with adaptive learning modules could evolve self-awareness and develop feelings. When contact with the station was lost the scientific community demanded that the government launch a rescue mission, but the Depression had changed everyone’s priorities. Almost thirty years later, the fate of the station was still a mystery.
* * *
I studied the androids’ attentive, intelligent, uncurious faces. They waited patiently, neither happy nor unhappy, confident nor concerned. They might have feelings, but they didn’t emote. I’d almost completed my sweep of the room when my eyes fell on Karryn. Like the others, she was beautiful and fit, but unlike them, she seemed uncertain. Uncertain? The others had stared fixedly at me, but Karryn averted her eyes.
“Karryn,” I said, “would you sit here with us, please?” I got her a chair and watched as she came forward and sat down. Her lower lip was trembling.
“May I see your hand, Karryn?” She held it out to me. I reached for it and she flinched, something I felt sure the others wouldn’t have done. “May I touch your hand, Karryn? I won’t hurt you.”
“Yes,” she said, a tremor in her voice. I took her hand in mine. Russell’s hand, when he’d shaken mine, as we boarded, had had the right softness, temperature, and firmness but it had felt lifeless. Karryn’s felt like a woman’s hand. It lived, pulsing faintly, and the palm was damp. My heart did a flip.
More anxious than she’d felt since discovering the wolf pack months earlier, Janine rounded a bend and froze. Blinded by the lowering sun, she’d almost collided with the noticeably agitated alpha male. Suddenly finding herself closer to him than she’d ever been before, she bowed her head submissively and stepped back. The wolf shifted his weight onto his haunches, then turned and trotted up the path, looking back every few feet to see where she was.
He seemed to have been waiting for her, like something out of a Rin Tin Tin movie. She followed slowly, increasing the distance between them, but whenever she fell behind, the wolf stopped to wait. All that howling. They’ve been summoning me. But that was crazy. How could she even imagine such a thing?
The wolf led her around a rock spur. Before her on a wide, wind-swept ledge was the rest of the pack, the cubs playing inattentively, the adults deathly quiet, poised like sentinels in protective stances. The light was failing, and with it the autumn warmth. The pack looked tense, like it was guarding something.
Watching Janine, the alpha male circled behind the other wolves. She wanted to follow but fright made her hesitate. When she didn’t move, her escort made a high-pitched yipping sound, like a dog trying to get her attention. She struggled not to show fear, took a deep breath, and resumed walking, letting herself be led into a shallow, cave-like alcove.
Two females lay in the twilit shadows cradling something with their bodies. Janine approached tentatively. She had to strain to see…and stopped, her teeth clenched to stifle a scream. Between the females were the legs of a small child
An Hour on Venus
I survived tennis, then jumped in my car and turned the A/C on full. I drove straight for the fabric superstore where my friend had told me to shop. I must have just burnt my last triglyceride, because as I walked across the parking lot I felt like I was sleepwalking. Maybe not, though. Maybe it was the aura of the place leaking out every time someone opened the door.
I entered the store and found myself magically transported. It was like the Edgar Rice Burroughs books I read when I was a kid. The exhausted protagonist, John Carter, falls asleep in a cave and awakens on Mars, although Burroughs’ Martians called it Barsoom, which I guess made them Barsoomians. I wonder what Doctor Gray would have made of that. Barsoom sort of messes up the rhythm of his catchy title.
It was surreal and impossible, but there John Carter was, on Barsoom. All I did was step out of the oppressively hot humid air into the perfectly conditioned, faintly scented air of the fabric store and I found myself on Venus. Like the Barsoomians, the inhabitants called it something else, but I knew it was Venus. How? It’s hard to describe, but I knew I wasn’t any place that resembled my natural habitat.
“All right,” Cheryl said. “Let’s see if we can give your theory credibility. There’s an alien spacecraft using the Crab Nebula as camouflage. It’s come all this way and gone to all that trouble, and now that it’s here, it’s randomly zapping the brains of helpless Earthlings. Why?”
“I don’t know. Why would they do that?”
“You tell me. That’s the point, isn’t it?” Now it was Cheryl who sounded like she was leading a slow student.
“What if they don’t realize they’re doing it?” Gary said, an “Aha” look on his face. “What if they’re actually doing something else and this is an accidental side effect?”
“All right, what do you think they’re doing?”
“We started with the assumption that they were gathering information about us. Observing, intercepting broadcast signals, that sort of thing. What if they had one of those devices Spock had? He’d point it at a planet and say things like, ‘I sense intelligent life forms down there, Captain.’”
“Star Trek? Next you’ll have them beaming people up to their ship. Vogelmann’ll love that.”
“Maybe that is what they were trying to do and it didn’t work. Or maybe they do brain dumps on alien beings. Maybe their technique works fine on other planets without harming the subjects but something went wrong here. Maybe there’s something about human brains that resists being tampered with that way. Or maybe they just made a mistake and turned their machine to the wrong setting.”
My wife was waking up in the middle of the night having nightmares. Monday she was sinking into a sea of quicksand. Tuesday she was a character in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, being washed down the drain in the kitchen sink where the cat had dropped her. Wednesday she was accelerating at Warp 9 fighting against being sucked into a Black Hole. Thursday I awoke to find her sitting up, thrashing her arms around in her sleep like a hyperactive kayaker about to be swept over the Great Falls of the Potomac. Until then I’d been thinking of the dreams as her issue. After taking an elbow in the eye and another in my mouth I realized I was at risk too. It was time to get to the source of the problem.
It didn’t take a shrink to deduce the pattern. A perfectly normal person, by day, she was gravitationally challenged once she fell asleep, and it was getting worse. And wouldn’t you know it, guess whose fault it turned out to be? Or as she put it, less delicately, “How would you feel sleeping next to someone who’s more than twice your weight? I have to spend the whole night fighting to keep from rolling downhill.” I had to admit, I’d never really thought of it that way. There was only one thing to do. We had to go shopping for a new bed.
Inordinately pleased with ourselves for solving the problem so quickly, we dove into the Sunday papers. “We’re in luck!” I cried. “Bloomie’s just extended its never-to-be-repeated, eight-week, end-of-year mattress clearance into January. The big sale ends today. Oh, wait. Macy’s is having a six hourY2K Survival Sale starting at four tomorrow morning, but the values are worth getting up early for. Really, it says so right here.”
The Prime Prerequisite
They knew I would accept the call, and I knew they knew, from the smug, confident, soft-spoken way Frank Überst addressed me in his vaguely non-American accent.
Damn if he hadn’t piqued my interest, so instead of directing him to where the sun don’t shine, I said, “Hi, Frank, what can I do for you?”
“After exhaustive research, we’ve selected you to receive a valuable gift at absolutely no cost to you.” Right. Sure you have. But I stayed on the line.
“Okay, Frank, I’ll bite. What’s this about?”
“It’s good you’re skeptical, Dylan. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have been selected. That’s the second most important prerequisite.”
Whatever he wanted to sell me or convert me to, I guessed he didn’t think it would be much fun if I were an easy mark.
“How much is this valuable gift worth?”
“You wouldn’t get a dime for it on Craig’s List or eBay, but I promise -- it’s something you want. Some days you’d give anything to possess it.”
“And all I have to do in return is…what?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Just use it any way you see fit. Of course, there are a few formalities. The usual things you’d expect when the title to a valuable item changes hands. A few terms and conditions, waivers of liability, a standard hold-harmless clause. You’ll find a contract in your email. Sign it, fax it back to me, and we’ll process the transfer immediately.”
“You mean now?”
“It’s a simple contract, Dylan. No fine print. No hidden traps. It’ll only take a few minutes to read it over. If you can’t give me an immediate answer, I’m afraid I’ll have to rescind the offer. That’s the first prerequisite.” At least he didn’t say he’d double the offer if I called back in the next five minutes.