The following is from my new short story collection, 7 or 8 More Ways to End the World, which is available on Amazon for $.99 today.
I am running through the sprinkler. The grass is soft, with patches of poky, dry weeds tickling my paws. There is pollen sticking to my fur and my tongue lolls from my mouth in contrast to the frantic movements of my legs and the waving of my tail.
Donald has just thrown the ball, and I’m in pursuit of it, feeling more alive than moments before, the thrill of the hunt pulling something bestial to the surface; in an instant I’m transforming from loving, happy, good-dog Faraday into something more primal. Feral. Not quite bad-dog, but close. Running not just through my favorite park, but also along a razor’s edge, where on one side is the pleasant family life I’ve come to enjoy, while the other is a one-eared, tailless, grizzled existence without a family. Without Donald and his children. Without the ball; the red rubber ball that is the only prey I can allow myself, and only for the brief duration between throw and surrender. Surrender always comes too soon.
I jump through the air and capture the ball mid-bounce, like a plump bird rising up from the brush, trying to escape but fully aware of its fate because of the same thoughtless instinct that makes me want to pull it down and eat it. Landing back into a run, I plant two paws, pivot, and rush back. Donald is calling out encouragements, and I know that seeing the extra effort on my part will make him happy.
“Nice catch, boy! Good dog, Faraday! Bring the ball, boy! Bring it here!”
I am the good dog he thinks I am, I tell myself. I will bring the ball back. I will be fed and kept warm in his big house, my head stroked in that pleasant way by his daughter and wife. I will suppress a part of me that makes my heart sing in order to maintain a degree of safety that my littermates and mother never could have hoped for.
The girl, Violet, is tugging at a tuft of fur on my neck as we lie on the couch. It’s not unpleasant — especially compared to how she would pluck out individual strands when she was younger, searching for the right hair with the care of a professional botanist before pulling it from my head, back, or tail — but it is distracting. I would greatly prefer to be listening more intently to the conversation going on in the adjoining kitchen, but I always feel myself being lulled into a soft, slow, sleep when she does this.
“The feasibility has been proven. You said that yourself. It’s nuts to think that throwing more money at the project would change its course at this point. We’re too far ahead for the suits to use this for something beyond our original goal. That’s locked in.”
“You say that,” says the stern-smelling man sitting next to Donald, sipping rosy liquid that whiffs of wine from a bell-shaped glass and puckering his lips before continuing. “But we both know it wouldn’t be the first time, and this is not the kind of thing you just write off as a loss if things go sideways. There are lives involved.”
“Not human lives,” says Donald, in that dismissive way he sometimes speaks about non-human animals. Over the years I’ve come to realize that Donald sometimes tries to act colder than he is when it comes to the animals he calls ‘subjects,’ which is a species I’ve never seen before, but I get the impression — from the descriptors he uses when talking about them — they are quite dog-like.
I’m wondering, not for the first time, whether or not I’d ever meet one of Donald’s mysterious subjects, when the stern man’s voice changes tenor, a little bit of anger rising into his larynx.
“I know that, Donald. And I know you need to toe the line when it comes to the bastards funding this thing, but not here. Don’t talk that bullshit with me, man.”
I feel a low rumble reverberate up in my throat, and both men look my way, startled. Violet pulls back quickly, before patting my head rapidly, nattering away in the way human children do, saying “No no no puppy-dog, no growl Faraday.” She pronounces my name ‘Fawa-day.’
“Look, Donald, you’re even pissing off your own damn dog.”
“Keep it down with that language in front of Violet. My wife would kill me.” Donald folds his arms and looks down at the table, then says, “And he’s not pissed at me, he’s pissed at you for sounding threatening. This is why dogs are the perfect subjects — they’re loyal. Have been bred that way for so many generations that it’s deep down in their genes to be subservient to us alpha wolves.” He grins but doesn’t grin — a mouth movement that seems at the same time painful and pleasurable. I assume it’s from the wine, which sometimes makes the humans who drink it smell funny and look different. “That’s why they’ll make the perfect peers. They’ll naturally keep themselves on a lower rung.”
It’s the middle of the night when my ears perk up of their own volition, catching a hint of an echo of a sound from downstairs. It’s not time to growl, not yet. When I pull Donald and his family from their naps they become angry and sometimes make me sleep downstairs where it’s much colder. Best to check things out myself, first.
They leave the door ajar when they sleep, so they can hear any stirrings from Violet’s room, and I nudge it open with my nose, licking my nostrils to make sure my senses are at their sharpest. Sniffing the air brings no satisfaction, however; the house smells like house, the normal palette of food and people and chemicals that make up Donald’s household. Nothing out of place.
Wait. I sniff again. Something. Something out of place. A smell that doesn’t belong, but still familiar.
I take a long drag of air and patter down the stairs, ears at full alert, tail stiff and steady, ready to signal friendliness or animosity. I can feel the thick fur along my spine raise in anticipation. I know this smell. But from where?
I’m slinking around the corner, moving toward the kitchen from the living room, when two things happen in quick succession.
Turning the corner triggers an association, reminding me where I know the smell from: Donald’s friend. The one I growled at before he left and everyone went to sleep. That was over a week ago, however, so I momentarily wonder why the smell has lingered so long. No, this one is fresh. From tonight. From — deep inhale — now. The man, still radiating the same scent as that previous night, is slinking his way through the house, eyes still adjusting to the darkness or his smell would be changing from anticipation to fear at the sight of me. He steps around the corner and I can tell his feet are padded in some way so that their contact with the kitchen tile makes a sound so faint I can’t hear it over the hum of the refrigerator.
I feel a growl grow slowly in my throat — he’s not supposed to be here, now, not when Donald is asleep — but a sharp sting in my side warps the low rumble into a small whine. The whine becomes a whimper, and then is snuffed into silence as the pain turns into painlessness — a complete lack of sensory information spreading from my flank to my back legs, then to my front legs and torso and, eventually, my neck and head. As the non-feeling spreads, so does a non-responsiveness in my muscles and joints. I only know I’ve fallen because I can still see, and my perspective is far lower than usual. Cloudy. As the horrible feeling spreads to my eyelids, the last thing I see is the man crossing the kitchen and reaching over to pat my head. The last thing I hear is his voice saying, “Don’t worry boy. It’s gonna be okay.”
Waking up has never been more confusing. I’m vaguely aware that I’ve been dreaming, but unclear as to what happened in the dream. Most dreams involve running, chasing, and jumping, with something warm and bloody and struggling in my mouth when I land. No rubber balls; just guiltless instinctual satisfaction. In my dreams, Donald is not angry with me when I don’t surrender my prize. In my dreams, Donald isn’t there at all.
My limbs are sore like I’ve been running in truth, not just in the mind-space where dreams take place. I’m aware that my eyelids aren’t working quite as they should; opening like the horrible, grinding garage door on Donald’s house, rather than shooting up like the neighbor’s cat when I sneak up on it mid-catnap.
The light is hazy, but it hurts my eyes anyway, and the pain subsides quickly as my vision focuses, blurriness retreating to the edges of my eyes before disappearing. I hear the scraping of metal on concrete nearby, and attempt to lift my head. The first effort is a failure, but I try again, and again, and eventually am able to lift one ear. I tell myself the other will rise in time — along with the rest of my body — as I take in my surroundings.
The room is stark and smells of chemicals. I smell a familiar hint of Donald’s musk. He’s been here before, but not recently. Days, probably. Maybe a week, but it’s hard to say for sure, since all of my senses seem a little unreliable at the moment.
There are a few metal tables and glass cabinets lining the walls, filled with glass containers similar to the ones Donald uses to serve up wine to his friends sometimes, but in a menagerie of shapes and sizes, like some clever human had decided to see how many variations on a form he could achieve.
I try and lift myself up and turn my head to take in the rest of the room, but before I can the source of the scraping sound shows himself: Donald’s friend. A blurry vision of the man in Donald’s kitchen comes to mind; and I manage a weak gurgle in my throat, a sapling compared to my usual mighty oak of a growl.
“You’re awake! Fantastic. Can you hear me, Faraday? If you can hear me, look at me.”
I look the man square in the eyes, and rather than the intimidation I was hoping for, he seems positively thrilled at my response.
“Excellent! That’s excellent. Okay. Faraday, I understand that you’re probably upset at me just now — I would be upset, too, if someone tranquilized me and stole me away from my home in the middle of the night. And I really regret that, but I’m hoping that what I’m going to tell you next helps you understand why I had to do it.”
I refocus my attention on regaining control over my limbs. I still can’t feel my tail, or my back legs. Move, tail, I think at the backside of my body. Move, tail. It doesn’t move. I keep trying.
“Faraday, you’re a dog, and I’m a human. You know this. You’ve had the capacity to make this distinction for some time, I think.”
Move, tail. I feel something brush against my back foot and take it for a good sign. I can’t feel my tail yet, but a tingling awareness is returning to my legs.
“I’m assuming this, and assuming you understand what I’m saying now, because you are a very special dog. You and two others — your only surviving littermates — are the results of a genetic experiment. Your cognitive capacity has been increased, and you’ve been imbued with the ability to distinguish between yourself and the rest of the world. To think in terms of ‘I,’ which is something only a double-handful of other animals can do.”
My tail is sliding slowly along the floor, and though I can’t yet raise it, I can definitely feel the muscles in all four legs twitching as I flex them. Tense and relax. Move them without moving them. Make sure they’re ready to use when I need them.
“We — Donald and I — have been researching such animals for a long time, and we decided to see what would happen if we introduced the gene that granted sentience — a sense of ‘I’, a distinction between the subject and their environment in their own mind, giving them the ability to think and plan and deduce like a human — in a social creature that existed within human society. It’s all well and good knowing that dolphins and a few whales and some kinds of magpie can use tools and identify themselves in a mirror, but what if a creature more interwoven with human civilization could do the same? It’s a question that’s dominated the last two decades of our lives. And you are the product of that work.”
I lick my nose and inhale. Now that my sense of smell is more steady, I can tell Donald’s friend is anxious. Bordering on terrified, in fact. He’s perspiring despite the chill in the room.
“Faraday, the reason I took you from your home is that Donald had been dealing behind my back with some pharmaceutical interests that wanted to take you — you and your littermates — and militarize you. They wanted to develop a species of intelligent dog to use in wartime situations. Which would keep the human body count down, but still allow them to stay relevant in a quickly changing battlefield. Donald wanted to take a project that started as a pursuit of camaraderie — an intellectual peer for humanity in the universe, so that we might view ourselves from an outside perspective for the first time — and turn it into a weapons program. He wanted you — and your offspring — to be suicide soldiers.”
I tense all my muscles at once, and feel the pleasurable strain of exertion. I’ll only get one chance.
“So I’ve arranged for you to be taken to your littermates — your brothers and sisters — at their respective laboratories in Cleveland and Omaha. I’ve given you one final gene-therapy treatment to make sure the changes stick, and will pass on to your offspring, and I’ve hired a van to —”
He’s squatting as he talks to me, so reaching his throat isn’t a challenge even in my weakened state. A look of surprise appears on his face that I’m certain I wouldn’t have noticed before — the bad-dog coming out usually eliminated such concerns, filling my vision with white noise as I give in to the beast — and as I bite down and taste blood, I wonder if that might be the result of the ‘final treatment’ he spoke of just before I tore his insides out.
The aftermath is just as sweet as I always felt it would be. A flicker of guilt crosses my consciousness — Donald would not approve, certainly — but from what this now-dead man said, it seems Donald is not the kind of person I should be listening to in the first place. I’m not sure what it all means — weapons program, battlefield, outside perspective — but I’ll find out. Can find out. As I sit in this swiftly growing puddle of blood, I can feel my horizons expanding. The possibilities becoming more clear.
I am a mind in a sea of minds, but the others are not aware of me. I have needs that can be fulfilled, and with stealth. I can free my litter-mates — my pack — and figure out our place in the world. I don’t know yet where I fit in this place, among these humans that I’ve blindly revered for so long, but I’m starting to think that it might not be underneath them.
No more surrender. I wonder for the first time about a world without Donald, as I wait for the van that will take me to Cleveland and Omaha; cities, I’m guessing.
I wonder how far along in the process my family has gotten. And if they’ll recognize me when we finally meet.