Who's a Good Boy?

Marlee Jane Ward

He looked the same. I don’t know what I expected—that maybe he’d be on two legs, or dressed in a suit—but he looked the same: standard golden retriever, long yellow coat. Only his eyes were different.

Art by Rebekka Dunlap.

Although animals have their own kind of intelligence, they're largely protected from ours. Which is good, because the beauty of pets is that they have no clue how badly we've bungled the world. Their concerns are few: love, food, play. Sometimes we envy them their ignorance, it makes their lives so simple. And sometimes we wish for something much more cruel: that they could just get on our level. —The Eds.

Hershaw came back after ten business days. I thought it would take longer.

It was rough coming home to no one after a long day of talking to no one in my cube at Central Bureaucracy. The kids gone, living their own lives. My wife and husband and our rearing unit long disbanded. I missed the manic love in Hershaw's eyes when I came through the door, the mix of joy and desperation.

I think that's why I did it. I wanted someone to talk to.

He came back on his own. I'm not sure if the couriers gave him a ride to the apartment or if they let him walk himself from the facility, but when he buzzed and I flicked the projector to view the door, there he was. My chest swelled and my heart beat double time.

He looked the same. I don't know what else I expected—that maybe he'd be on two legs, or dressed in a suit—but he looked the same: standard golden retriever, long yellow coat. Only his eyes were different.

"It's Hershaw," he said, like I wouldn't know. His voice was what I'd always imagined his voice to be like, the gruff drawl of a newsreader in a classic flix.

"Let me in, Sera."

I did.

We looked at each other a while.

"How have you been?" I asked, wary. I'd expected his usual greeting: a jump, tail wagging, maybe a quick lick on the cheek. But he stood by the door, glancing over his bed, the crate, his toys, then back up at me. I cleared the balls and half-destroyed stuffed animals away, oddly embarrassed, then I sat on the couch and patted my knee, calling him over.

"Come here, Hershaw. I've missed you." The next bit came out automatically, "Who's a good boy?" I clapped my hand over my mouth.

"Don't patronize me," Hershaw said. He went over to his bed on the far side of the room.

"I gotta take a piss," Hershaw said. I cracked open my eyes. He was standing right in front of me, fur glowing a soft green in the blue lights of the hibernating wallscreen. My phone, angled towards me on the recharge patch, said four-twenty-seven am.

"It's still dark. You've never needed me to take you out this early before."

"I didn't want to wake you before."

"But you do now?" I said, voice thick with sleep.

"Yeah. I do." He trotted to the door and sat in front of it, like he used to, looking intently at the knob as I fumbled with my shoes. The only thing missing was the sweep of his brush tail over the floor.

"Can you look away?" he asked when we got to the PeeTree™.

On Tuesday, in the off-leash zone in the greenspace across from the apartment, Hershaw brought me a ball in his mouth. I'm not sure where he found it. He dropped it in front of me and it rolled until it hit my foot.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"Let's try," he said and I picked it up, hurling it across the open space. He took off after it, caught it, brought it back.

"How was it?" I asked.

He started to talk around the ball, then realized his error and dropped it. We both laughed, then caught ourselves.

"It was okay," he said, nosing the ball over towards me. "Let's try again."

We did. It was okay.

"It's not the same, you know," he told me afterwards as we sat on the soft grass, sky all blue around us. His head was on my thigh and I flicked my fingers over his velvet ears. "It used to be so simple."

"How did it change?" I asked him. "Do you remember before?"

"Yes," he told me, pulling his head away. "It used to be just, 'get the ball, bring it back, she'll throw it again.' Now, when you throw it I think about the arc and fall, and wonder why it curves the way it does, and what might happen if it hits someone, or where it might land or…I think, why throw it away if I'm just gonna bring it back? I think about why it's supposed to be fun, instead of just having fun."

He didn't go on, but he didn't need to. I knew what he meant. We sat, watching dogs and cats and foxes on their daily outdoor, their owners and drones leading and playing. It looked so simple.

"Why can't I sit on the couch?" Hershaw asked from his spot by my feet on the floor.

It caught me off guard. "Ah, well, your fur…"

"You shed. I'm always licking your hairs off myself."

"That's different."


He was right. I bathed him regularly. He didn't have too much of a doggy smell. His long blond hairs were always all over my clothes anyway. Why did I keep him off the couch?

"Fine, come up then." I patted the cushion next to me. He jumped up, but sat off to the side, resting his head on the arm.

"You own me," he said, not looking at me.

"Well, yes, you're registered to me with the Central Bureaucracy. All dogs have to be."

"But you bought me, yes? Away from my mother?"

"I did."

"What was she like?"

"She was beautiful. Great coat. Good temperament."

"But what was she like?"

I didn't know. I told him so.

"How can one person own another?" Hershaw asked, yellow face cocked, brow creased.

"You aren't a person. You're a dog."

"But I have a personality, even before my Uplift?"

"I love your personality. That's why--"

"Then what's the difference?"

I didn't know. I told him so.

"You own me. That's fucked up."

"I'm sorry," I said, soft.

He looked back to the wallscreen.

"I hate this show," he said.

"Did you opt for the full or the half-lift?"

"Full." I told the woman at customer support. She rolled her eyes, the audio on the wave crackling as she sighed.

"That's your problem. No one who goes with full lift stays that way. Either the animal chooses to go back, or the owner chooses for them. Half lift is much more manageable."

"What's the half lift?"

"Basic dog-that-can-talk, without the whole consciousness thing. A lot simpler. It's what people really want when they opt for this sort of thing."

I looked to Hershaw, his smooth yellow head perched on my leg. He looked at me, black eyes void and wet.

"Do you want that?"

"I don't know. Let me think on it."

The covers came off me in a swift jerk. In the dark I reached for them, but they weren't there. I sat up and the room sensed my motion and glowed the lights up to dim. Hershaw was there, his tail drooping, back sloping into a sad curve. He licked at his nose, once, twice.

"How do you do it?" he asked, his voice going up at the end in a mad kind of tone that scared me.

"Do what, Hershaw?"

"How do you fucking sleep with all these thoughts?" he bellowed. His jaw snapped near my hand as he tore my pillow from the bed and I pulled it away, frightened. He pawed the pillow, growling, ripping the case open and shaking the split thing from side to side. Down poured out of the bloodless tear and danced on the soft blow of the aircon.

"Hershaw, you're scaring me." I tell him, downy feathers floating around us, settling in his ears and my eyelashes. "What can I do? Do you want one of my Calmucets?"

"No wonder you take that shit," he said, dropping to his belly, chin flat to the floor. "It's agonizing, inside my head. I can't explain it. It hurts but it doesn't, too. Like, anguish? What kind of emotion is that?"

I dropped down onto the bed, plumes of feathers stirring and sinking. "I wish I knew, Hershaw. I've got a repeat script for this stuff." I rattled the Calmucet bottle. "I've been running the neuroses program longer than I can remember."

"And shame! Fuck me, what a useless emotion. Or guilt…AI's don't even have guilt, they know it's a waste of storage." He crawls over to me, rolls on his side, lifts a leg slightly. I rub his belly with the ball of my foot. He sighs.

"I want it to be like it used to be."

"Me too," I told him.

The Uplift office was done in the brutalist style, which wasn't surprising. Hershaw's back legs trembled as he entered.

The woman at the counter scanned my syspatch. "Drop down to the half-lift for Hershaw here?"

I nodded.

She came out from behind the counter and took his leash. He didn't need one anymore. He understood the pattern flows of streetside traffic better than I did, but it was reg. She dropped to a knee and ruffled his head. I could tell Hershaw didn't like the familiarity. His tail drooped and he licked his nose.

"Hershaw…" I said, kneeling, stroking his face. "Are you sure this is what you want? We could try something else. Maybe you could move out, get a place on your own. We could work on it."

"No, I'm sure."

I watched as she led him through a door, felt a stab in my gut as someone inside took the leash and he disappeared down the hallway. But Hershaw didn't look back.

The woman took her place behind the counter again. She looked around, then reached into a drawer as I gripped the counter and felt a hot tear spill down beside my nose. I didn't know how I'd make it through the next ten business days.

"It goes both ways, you know," she said, her voice cool. I looked up and she winked, placing the square on the countertop with a soft cardboard click. "It's not exactly regulation, but it's very popular."

The card said 'Downgrade, Inc.'

This is Terraform, our home for future fiction. Art by Rebekka Dunlap.